Halfway Home

We’ve hit the midpoint of the 2019 campaign. It’s starting to smell suspiciously like skunk, but first let’s take stock of how the first six games of the season have treated the Irish. Below we revisit our 2019 season preview and all the overconfident predictions made way back between spring and fall camps. Don’t judge our guesses too harshly, because:

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Offense

  • Who will be the offensive MVP?

    • Andrew: I more or less didn’t entertain that this answer would be anyone other than Ian Book, which isn’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, or thought, or gone on the record online about, but it doesn’t exactly hold up. Has he put the team in a position to win every week? Absolutely. Has he been the best or most consistent player on the offense so far? Nope. I think the answer right now is almost absolutely Tony Jones, who’s greatly progressed after opening the year looking about as expected (reliable yet unspectacular). He’s averaging nearly seven yards a pop, which ranks among the top ten nationally, is on pace for over 1,100 rushing yards (!), and was a stud in the two biggest games of the year to date (in two very different ways).
    • Alex: It’s pretty wild to think about, but you’re right. Though in terms of pure talent—the guy who’s a matchup nightmare, the weapon you turn to when the game is on the line—Kmet and Claypool will probably be the most valuable players going forward. They’ve both made dominating one-on-one plays in big moments and are without a doubt the first guys opposing d-coordinators circle when they’re game planning against us. To me, Tony’s certainly more a product of the solid o-line play than anything else. I love him and I couldn’t ask for much more, but I get excited about the level we can hit with a guy like Chris Tyree running behind our big boys. 
  • Will Ian Book match last year’s school record completion percentage of 68.2%?

    • Andrew: No was definitely the right call — he’s actually only cracked that threshold against Bowling Green, and currently is hitting 63.2% of his passes. That number by itself isn’t bad, but it’s enough of a drop to make you think.
    • Alex: Somehow it seems like the easy stuff is harder for Book than it was last year. He’s still getting the ball where it needs to go, but the ball placement is rarely as perfect as it was last year. We got used to him hitting guys in stride and setting up YAC almost automatically, but the touch hasn’t quite been there so far. Book still gets the job done, but he hasn’t taken the step all of us hoped he would.
  • Can the offense materially improve passing game explosiveness?

    • Andrew: I thought that passes downfield would materially increase this year, but Pete Sampson notes that pass attempts of at least 20 yards per game have dipped from five in 2018 to three in 2019. For whatever reason, despite being actually pretty good at pressing the ball downfield, Book is not in a place where he takes those shots consistently, and the offense is worse off for it. Yards per attempt are actually a tick below last year, even with the noted dip in completion percentage. Book’s strengths remain protecting the football and simply doing enough to win ball games, for better or for worse. Also: it should be noted that Book is on pace to exactly match Jimmy Clausen’s senior year output of 28 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. It doesn’t exactly pass the eye test, but the stats can’t lie that much.
    • Alex: I’ll certainly take those numbers, but there’s just something missing in the passing game. It never feels like a big play could happen at any moment, even with the weapons we have (unless we’re playing Bowling Green). Chip Long has done a solid job manufacturing offense, but it’s hard to see Braden Lenzy pop off on his USC touchdown run (some say that d-lineman is still chasing him around the edge) and not think we could be pushing the ball down the field more. We’ve got the horses, but it still seems like Book is lacking the anticipation to hit them when they break free on deep routes. The upside is that we were a bit off before the season—even without consistently converting deep shots, this offense can be effective enough to keep us in every game we play. 
  • Will the Irish be able to effectively run the ball without an established home run threat?

    • Andrew: My answer: “If Jafar Armstrong can’t stay healthy, the answer to this question is certainly no.” Lol. What a genuine relief that Tony Jones has gotten better as we’ve gotten deeper in the season — the offense simply didn’t have enough juice to take down Southern Cal without him. The line has been punishing opposing fronts recently, and should continue to make the ground game a strength.
    • Alex: Hey, I said Tony would make an impact! Good job, me. I’m still waiting for one of the other guys—probably Jahmir Smith—to emerge. It would be a real boon for this offense and help take some of the load off Tony’s brolic shoulders. But more than anything, I’m excited to see what kind of two-back-set magic Chip Long pulls out of his bag with a healthy Armstrong going forward.
  • Will Cole Kmet live up to the hype that’s been building around the program and in ND media circles?

    • Andrew: This one was certainly in question after a broken collarbone kept him out of the season’s first two games, but all he’s done since is prove himself to be a bona fide NFL prospect and quickly establish himself as the team’s second leading receiver. Resounding yes, even if he could stand to get a few more targets per game.
    • Alex: Yes, yes and yes. He’s playing so well that it’s a problem in that he’ll almost certainly get good feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee and head to the league after this season. Get him the damn ball. 
  • Which WR will have the most catches — Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy, or Joe Wilkins?

    • Andrew: Only Lenzy and Keys qualify so far — the latter leads with seven catches for 70 yards, but Lenzy has been more impactful, with 155 yards from scrimmage and two scores. Chip Long’s reliance on two-tight end sets is a limiting factor, but both should continue to contribute, especially after Lenzy’s extremely disrespectful esplosiva touchdown against the Trojans.
    • Alex: I still want more from Keys. He’s been banged up, but if Finke’s relatively disappointing start to the year continues it might be time to give him more run in the slot. If he can stay healthy, I think he’ll make plays.
  • Will the offense average more than last year’s 6.0 yards per play?

    • Andrew: My prediction of “easily over 6 and just short of 7” is looking good, as we sit at 6.9 yards per play. Obviously, games against tomato cans like New Mexico and Bowling Green help, but the post-Michigan schedule should allow the Irish to maintain and even improve on that mark.
    • Alex: It certainly seems like we can crack seven through the latter half of the season, especially with a healthy Armstrong making us even harder to scheme against.
  • Will the offense lose more or fewer than last year’s 17 turnovers?

    • Andrew: Taking the over looks downright foolish right now, which is great. Only losing two picks and two fumbles has helped the Irish to a +10 turnover margin, good for second in the country. Say what you will about the tradeoff between turnovers and explosiveness, but Ian Book knows how to run a clean offense.
    • Alex: And he better keep it clean, because if we don’t things could get ugly. So much in modern football is decided by Toxic Differential—the stat that aggregates the net result of the big plays and turnovers a team generates and gives up—and we’re not doing ourselves too many favors in the big play category. Keep protecting that ball, Ian.
  • Will Chase Claypool break 1,000 yards receiving?

    • Andrew: My guess before checking was that Chase would be halfway to 750 yards, and as it turns out he’s currently on track to finish a bit short of 60 catches and 800 yards. This is different than saying it will happen, but I think the offense should prioritize its best skill players (Claypool and Kmet) more down the homestretch to get the passing game back on track. (Also, big swing and a miss thinking Chris Finke would catch 60 balls when he’s on pace for literally half of that. Woof.)
    • Alex: My gut feel right now says no, just because there are too many mouths to feed. If he’s not on track for 1,000 after playing games without Kmet and Armstrong competing for targets, I’m not sure he gets there with both of them healthy. He should and almost certainly will be the guy opposing teams try to scheme out of the game, and while the offense as a whole should keep clicking and he’ll still make plays I think 1,000 might be a bit too much to catch up to now. To me, that’s totally fine—just because he won’t hit a nice, clean four-digit total doesn’t mean he isn’t playing at an extremely high level (and he is).
  • Which RB will get the most carries — Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, or Kyren Williams?

    • Andrew: It comes as a mild surprise that C’Bo is ahead so far, with five more carries than Jahmir. My guess is that the trend in Smith’s direction that we saw against Southern Cal continues throughout the back half, and he does in fact finish with the most carries of this group.
    • Alex: I get the feeling that Long will ride the hot hand, particularly between Smith and Flemister. It’s going to be even harder for either of them to get a high volume of snaps now that Jafar is getting healthy, but if either of them makes a couple of big plays I bet Long gives them a chance to shine.
  • How many points per game will the offense average?

    • Andrew: Hitting 35 and approaching 40 was the clear objective for Chip Long this year — he’s right on track so far, not even a full point short of 40, despite my prior skepticism that the offense could reach that milestone. Michigan’s theoretically talented but inconsistent defense poses the final major regular season test, and the Irish O should be cooking the rest of the way (I still think they end up just a smidge below 40).
    • Alex: We were both in agreement that 40 had to be the goal for this to be a playoff team, but in my heart of hearts I didn’t think we’d get there. But the signs so far are promising—we still haven’t seen the full-strength version of this offense that Long and company schemed up during the offseason. Get past Michigan and keep dialing things in, and we can break that 40-point ceiling. That might not quite get us to the Playoff, but it might make January 1 a hell of a lot of fun.
  • Which non-2018 starter will make the most significant impact?

    • Andrew: The best case scenario (Kevin Austin) absolutely did not pan out, but the more realistic one (Cole Kmet) certainly has. Barring any more injury trouble, he’s set to exceed his first half production in the final six games.
    • Alex: Keys certainly wasn’t the right pick, but injuries have had something to do with that. It’s gotta be Kmet.
  • Will Phil Jurkovec show enough in spot action to alleviate concerns about QB depth and a potential new starter next year?

    • Andrew: Okay, okay, Phil’s probably fine. The sample size has been small, but it looks like those spring yips are mostly gone. Still, whether he’ll have an opportunity to start next year is anybody’s guess.
    • Alex: All I can do is shrug. We know less than nothing about how next season’s QB situation pans out—it’s probably Jurk, but what if Drew Pyne comes in ready to make an impact? What if Brendon Clark takes a step? What if they’re all keeping the seat warm for Tyler Buchner? We have to wait and see.

Defense

  • Who will be the defensive MVP?

    • Andrew: Alohi’s been very solid in an expanded role, if a little sloppy in tackling from time to time. Julian’s been quieter than expected on the whole, but still good as opposing offenses dedicate plenty of resources to minimize the damage he can do. This is kind of a weird, wide open race, and I think I have to go with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for the time being. Not that he’s been the defense’s best player at all times, but he’s been a force all over the field, leading the linebacking corps in tackles, forced fumbles, sacks (tied with Drew White), and (I’m guessing) most ground covered. Asmar Bilal has also played himself into this conversation, which is wonderful, but I’d accept almost any answer here. It’s a testament to how consistently solid this defense has been across the board.
    • Alex: I may have been a hair to bullish on Okwara, and he likely won’t hit his loft 18.5 sack goal, but he’s certainly still making an impact. It really is hard to pick an individual top dog here with such a strong overall group. JOK’s a great pick, and in a dream world I’d just split it between Gilman and Jalen Elliot. The veteran safety duo has been as good as advertised with 64 total tackles and 3 picks between them. They change the way opposing offenses can approach the game, and the addition of Kyle Hamilton has opened up even more of Gilman’s game, turning him into a chess piece that attacks from all over the defense. Give ‘em all the award.
  • Which LB will play the most snaps at each position?

    • Andrew: After some shakiness in the opener, it’s been almost all smooth sailing for Asmar Bilal, Drew White, and JOK. Clark Lea’s impact on this position group cannot be overstated — they’re a legitimate strength after being perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. Feels good.
    • Alex: It’s got to be the most unexpected, and potentially season-defining, development of the year so far. Nobody—seriously, nobody and you’re lying if you say otherwise—saw this coming. This group is proving us all wrong in the best way.
  • Who will be hardest to replace — Julian Love, Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquil, or Te’von Coney?

    • Andrew: Given how significantly the linebackers have outperformed expectations, and considering how effectively Markese Stepp was able to gut the Irish defense, it still feels like Tillery. Troy Pride has given us few convincing Gary Gray impressions, but has been mostly solid; if Shaun Crawford doesn’t get hurt, I probably don’t even bring up the secondary here. This isn’t to slight MTA and the rest of the interior of the defensive line, who have filled in capably, but the Tillery of 2018 was something else entirely.
    • Alex: 6’6, 300 pound guys who can move like Tillery don’t grow on trees—there’s a reason he was a first rounder in this year’s draft. As solid as Hinish and MTA have been, they’re just not the same kind of disruptive force as Tillery. The good news is the two recruiting classes we have on the way will bring some legit interior talent (Riley Mills, come on down) that can get into the backfield and rush the passer from the middle.
  • Will the defense give up fewer than last year’s 4.7 yards per play?

    • Andrew: Right now it looks like our skepticism was warranted, but I’ll admit it’s closer than expected — 5.0 yards given up per play is nothing to shrug at, especially after losing all that NFL talent. The subpar offensive talent remaining on the schedule presents an opportunity to improve on last year’s results.
    • Alex: I suspect that you’re right, and statistically we’ll end the season without a massive dropoff from 2018’s strong totals. It’s a marker of great coaching, fueling better recruiting and the development of a defense with playmakers at every level.
  • Will NDNation turn on Clark Lea?

    • Andrew: Not yet! There’s even a small contingent rumbling about his future head coaching prospects. This is perhaps the most impressive feat of Lea’s tenure to date.
    • Alex: I will not tolerate any Clark Lea slander. I’m genuinely worried about the soupy brain of anyone who can find a reason to attack the guy.
  • How many sacks will Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem combine for?

    • Andrew: For all the offseason chatter about how unstoppable this duo would be, it hasn’t been quite that cut and dry. At times it feels like they’re being schemed into oblivion, but that of course opens up avenues for everyone else on the defense, and it would be downright wrong to say they haven’t played well. Anyways, I predicted 18 combined sacks and they’re on schedule to total 17, so things are actually right on track. Let’s just hope that output can be a bit more consistent moving forward.
    • Alex: I need to seriously pump the breaks on my over-20 prediction from a few months back. I don’t think that’s happening (though if they feast on weaker opponents down the stretch, it’s not out of the question), but the total will 1,000% eclipse 20 if you add Jamir Jones into the equation. What an emergence from a guy who was considered a borderline redshirt at the top of the season—Daelin Hayes’s injury is undeniably a bummer, but it opened the door for another contributor to emerge on the edge and Jones has answered the call and then some. 
  • Which non-2018 starter will make the most significant impact?

    • Andrew: Well, there was certainly an argument to be made for Shaun Crawford until he went down. On the whole, I think Alex was right — I’ve already picked JOK as my first half defensive MVP anyway.
    • Alex: He’s such a fun guy to watch. Wu certainly has his fair share of missed plays, but when he can read and react his athleticism just explodes off the screen. He’s exactly the kind of versatile, aggressive weapon Clark Lea can take advantage of at rover.
  • Who will step up in the secondary (besides Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott, and Troy Pride)?

    • Andrew: The Houston Griffith experiment has been postponed until 2020 but that’s okay because of  KYYYYLE HAMILTONNNNNNNNNNN. I would like to be involved in his junior year Heisman campaign in some shape or form, please.
    • Alex: The man is the absolute truth and we are so spoiled to have him for at least two more years. I can only imagine what kind of plays he’ll make as a junior. Let’s give TaRiq Bracy some credit too—he’s stepped up as a starter in the wake of the Crawford injury and leads the team with five passes defended.

Special Teams

  • Will ND make double digit field goals (10 is the BK-era low)?

    • Andrew: Absolutely delighted to eat crow here. Jonathan Doerer is That Dude, and will remain That Dude for the rest of the season, because the dang kicker got the dang game ball against Southern Cal. He’s only been called on seven times, making six, but those last three were monumental.
    • Alex: Forget what I said about the linebacker turnaround being the shock storyline of the season—this is the real redemption story. It seems like Doerer just flipped a switch, and all of that leg talent was finally put to proper use. Hopefully he’s feeling himself post-USC and remains a weapon for the rest of the year.
  • Will Jonathan Doerer or Harrison Leonard end the season as primary kicker?

    • Andrew: Wrong here too. But now we get to groom a kicker! Blessed.
    • Alex: I’m so happy to look like a damn fool. 
  • Will the Irish get a return touchdown for the first time since 2016?

    • Andrew: *gives side-eye in Michael Young’s general direction*
    • Alex: Honestly, we might just be cursed on kickoffs.

Misc.

  • How will the Irish fare against Georgia/Michigan/Stanford?

    • Andrew: 2-1 still feels right. I’ve got a funky feeling about Saturday after watching the slapfight that was Michigan-Penn State, but this team should be able to take care of business against the Harbaugh-led Wolverines, who absolutely cannot buy a big game win.
    • Alex: As the game gets closer, I get more and more nervous. Michigan is playing with house money, and they’re probably feeling a dangerous combination of confident and hungry after that near-miss. Still, I’m on the 2-1 train—you gotta believe.
  • What non-marquee game is most worrying?

    • Andrew: Virginia wasn’t a cakewalk, but the second half was maybe the most fun stretch of the season so far. What’s the most concerning matchup in the second half? Pretty much everyone remaining sucks at least a little bit, but I agree with what Jamie Uyeyama said on the most recent Rakes Report — Duke feels like it could get a little funky for no good reason at all.
    • Alex: After watching their absurd 6-overtime win over North Carolina this weekend, I’m convinced Virginia Tech is carrying some powerful chaotic energy with them into battle. Things could get weird.
  • What mishap will cause Brian Kelly to unknowingly curse on live television?

    • Andrew: One of the more surprising developments of this season is that BK’s most notable sideline reaction moment was him laughing. BK 2.0 is just here to have a good time (although I hope he cursed himself out after being several yards onto the field on that USC onside kick).
    • Alex: That might have been the dumbest decision anyone on the team has gotten away with all season—but I mean, he did get them in the right spot to field the kick. Let’s just keep the good times rolling from here on out and the swearing to a minimum.
  • 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.” Check! Should have just outright predicted a pick six.
    • Alex: Jacob Lacey is certainly a nice piece, especially for a freshman, but I shouldn’t have been so bashful. It’s all about Kyle Hamilton.
  • Can the Irish avoid the November scaries for the second consecutive year?

    • Andrew: Justin Fuente is on his way out at Virginia Tech. I’m worried about Duke for no good reason, but they’re objectively not all that scary. Navy is solid, and always a weird one. Boston College lost to Kansas (to be fair, the Jayhawks had Texas on the ropes as well) and later lost their starting quarterback. Stanford looks like a middling Big 10 team. We’ll be alright.
    • Alex: If things go off the rails from here on out, it’s going to be an undeniable disappointment. This schedule has turned out to be a relatively weak one, and we should be favorites in every post-Michigan game for good reason. 
  • What unit will be the biggest weakness?

    • Andrew: Is it….passing game inconsistency? There have certainly been quarters where it’s looked sharp, but it’s hard to feel all that confident on an ongoing basis. Ian Book needs to be more consistent.
    • Alex: When I think about how opposing teams will attack us, I think about our lack of depth at cornerback, so I’m going to go with that. Luckily if Shaun Crawford comes back and stays healthy, that fear is pretty much gone. And it bears repeating—we were wrong about the kicking game and linebackers, and it feels good.
  • What unit will be the biggest strength?

    • Andrew: Well, after the above answer my preseason pick of quarterback looks even worse. Can’t win em all. The way things are trending right now, I’m actually feeling the offensive line. They’ve been very good in pass protection and have gashed every front seven after Georgia, leading to three straight hundred yard efforts from Tony Jones. RTDB.
    • Alex: The pass rush hasn’t been bad and the edge depth has been as good as advertised, but it’s not the clear standout group I hoped it would be. I’m with you, the offensive line keeps getting better, and PFF has them ranked first in the nation in pass blocking efficiency. Even with all that success, it still seems like none of them is making a case to be a surefire first-rounder and we might just get them all back next year.
  • How many wins will ND finish the season with? /// Is this the year they make the leap and hang with Alabama and Clemson?

    • Andrew: Given Clemson’s early season struggles, it’s not crazy to think that the Irish could hang right with them right now, but that’s not really the point. This doesn’t look like the year the Irish seriously contend for a title, but eleven regular season wins and a good bowl win are right there for the taking. First things first: beat the hell out of Michigan.
    • Alex: The Playoff is probably a reach even if we win out, so I don’t think this is the year we climb among college football’s elite. But there’s enough to look forward to that I don’t really mind—we’ve set the table for eleven wins and a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. Let’s win one this time.

Photo via Matt Cashore

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