Looking Ahead

The recent chatter about Shaun Crawford reversing course on his previous declaration that his fifth year in South Bend would be his last has, unfortunately, jump-started my excitement for the 2020 season before the 2019 campaign has even ended. On the heels of a world-beating November, Ian Book feels like a good bet to return, and Cole Kmet has expressed his desire for another year of college football (and baseball) despite predictably high draft grades. Notre Dame needs these few decisions to break its way to have a shot at another playoff berth.

Chip Long’s departure is the elephant in the room, and we most likely won’t have a good idea of who his replacement will be until the new year, but it’s not like he was operating on Clark Lea The God level on a consistent basis. He did a good job, not always a great job, and some fresh blood could very well inject some new life into the offense (if Twitter is any indication this will be a controversial statement. I grow weary of this fanbase). If Brian Kelly can nail this hire — and that’s TBD, because I can’t fight my own skepticism of a potential Tommy Rees hire here, sorry gang — there is a ton to be excited about.

DEPTH CHART HERE BECAUSE WORDPRESS HATES TO IMPORT HIGH QUALITY IMAGES

 

 

Linked above is a basic two-deep depth chart of sorts, one that’s admittedly inexact (for example, Josh Lugg would probably be the next man in across several o-line positions) and subject to change (college football offseasons, you know the deal). A handful of these calls are nothing more than semi-educated guesses. The shades you see are on a spectrum reflecting my own confidence in that player/position, relying on my gut a proprietary combination of extremely objective and quantifiable factors that won’t be revealed here. After the fact I’d say it’s something like ⅔ output to date and ⅓ potential, which is one reason I was conservative in slotting incoming freshmen (the others being that, duh, freshmen tend not to play a whole lot, and that I am verrry far from a recruiting expert). There’s a good chance someone like Tosh Baker is a second-team lineman but I didn’t go there just yet.

Special teams isn’t included in this breakdown but we are of course all set at kicker and punter. Hopefully losing the nation’s best long snapper isn’t a calamity.

Offense

Is awarding Ian Book the highest confidence level repeating the literal exact mistake I and many others made last offseason? Quite clearly yes, but going for it anyways. Book will always be an imperfect signal caller, but I can’t imagine watching his recent performance and not thinking that’s a guy you want leading your team for another year, full stop. Whether his current backup will stick around for another year as #2 is obviously a storyline to watch in the coming months, pending Ian’s own announcement.

I felt compelled to cheat numbers-wise with the running backs, because there’s no obvious answer, just a glut that’s made considerably more exciting by today’s addition of Chris Tyree. If Tony Jones returns and looks like he did in that wonderful UVA-BGSU-USC stretch, coupled with a healthier Jafar Armstrong (oxymoron, I know), that’s an answer. Maybe the answer is the current second line — C’Bo ran extremely hard and flashed the most towards the end of this season, but each back showed something at different points in the year. The wild card is that incoming five-star freshman — it’s unrealistic to expect him to carry the load from day one, but I’m bullish on his ability to materially contribute. Having one more home run hitter could be the difference against Wisconsin and Clemson, so the staff has to get him up and running by October. There’s no immediate solution, but enough to work with to set expectations decently high.

Wideout is also one of the more interesting position groups despite the upcoming losses of Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Per Brian Kelly, and pretty much anyone worth paying attention to around the program, Kevin Austin’s ceiling is as high as any of his teammates. That might apply to Jordan Johnson as well.  One of them needs to at least try on Claypool’s shoes and start to fill that void. Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys only got better as the 2019 season progressed, and, if they can level up in reliability, should have very fun seasons. In reality, the most capable receiver on the team will of course be (knock on wood) Cole Kmet. Tommy Tremble will also be a fun weapon, and should see his snap count continue to rise as his blocking ability progresses (what a difference a few months made on this front for Mr. Tremble).

As far as the line goes, well, everyone should come back, and that should be a good thing. Of course the injuries took a toll on this group’s 2019 productivity, but even prior to that attrition, it was (to borrow a phrase from The Athletic’s finest) rarely more than the sum of its parts. Things could be worse, but they could be better. There’s a lot of talent here — no Quenton Nelsons, sure, but it’s high time for Jeff Quinn to put it all together.

Defense

Let’s first note that the defensive front is chock full of very cool lineman names: Tagovailoa-Amosa, Ademilola, Oghoufo, Foskey, et al. Very nice. Daelin Hayes has had a perfectly good career after a ton of recruiting hype, and this fifth year is a chance for him to really make a name for himself, probably as a captain. Otherwise there’s not a lot of star power yet, but a lot of young depth and breakout potential (Lacey is a prime candidate, not to mention Isaiah Foskey and Howard Cross, who didn’t even make the cut here). I’m guilty of not giving the Ademilola brothers their proper due to this point — they haven’t been all that flashy, just very solid in on-and-off duty. Hinish and MTA will continue to effectively anchor the middle. Should be pretty good across the board, even as we bid farewell to Khalid and Julian and Jamir.

Losing Asmar Bilal really does hurt, as he outperformed consensus preseason expectations perhaps moreso than any Irish starter in the past few years. Can JGH or Jack Lamb step in and play to a similar level? I don’t know, but learning under Clark Lea gives them a fighting chance. Drew White and JOK should keep building and have phenomenal years. A while back there were whispers of cross-training Owusu-Koramoah at Buck to open up more snaps for Paul Moala, but I haven’t heard much on that topic recently. Regardless, this offseason will bring with it about 90% less linebacker angst than the last. ❤ Clark.

Speaking of angst, let’s talk cornerbacks. If Crawford doesn’t end up coming back I really might go into full-on crisis mode, but let’s cross that bridge when we get there. I feel genuinely bad about not giving him full confidence but his size and injury history are notable asterisks for a number one corner. TaRiq Bracy isn’t a bad guy to throw out there by any means, but the depth below those two is so very far from ideal. Plenty of time for the staff to figure it out, but it’s muddy for the time being.

One very important note is that Alohi Gilman does still have another year of eligibility remaining. For a while now, conventional wisdom has been that he’d leave for the NFL after the bowl game, but as far as we know that hasn’t been settled yet. It goes without saying that his return would be absolutely gigantic for this team, a la getting back a Tranquil/Coney a couple years ago. If he does choose to leave, former Buckeye Isaiah Pryor should be able to step in capably. We can only hope that this season was important developmentally for Houston Griffith and that he can live up to the potential he displayed freshman year. Finally, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more confident in a rising sophomore than I am in Kyle Hamilton. Start the Heisman campaign now.

Basically what I’m saying is we’re going back to the playoffs babyyyyyyyyyyyyyy let’s goooo (I think I’m mostly serious). If most of the stay/go decisions break in our favor — always a big if — this team will be able to compete with the best. Would be a good idea to beat Iowa State and start off the break on the right foot, that’s for sure.