2020’s Open Questions

Can Jafar Armstrong shoulder a starting running back’s workload for an entire season?

2019 was a rough year for those of us who had previously invested in JA8 stock. Sustaining an injury on his third touch of the season was a major developmental setback, and memorable flashes of his natural talent were hard to come by. Without a stout defensive effort and last second heroics from Chase Claypool and Ian Book, his goal line fumble against Virginia Tech would have likely been remembered as the play that fully torpedoed the season (not an alternate reality I like to spend too much time pondering).

So where do we go from here? The depth chart is crowded, but last year’s starter is gone, and it feels like now or never despite this only being Armstrong’s third year as a contributor. I’m not yet fully endorsing a move out wide, but it’s on the table, mostly because his instincts out of the backfield have never definitively passed the eye test. Counterintuitively, the former receiver seems to seek out contact and go to ground instead of relying on his agility to elude defenders. The truckstick has worked from time to time, but it’s also led to statlines like the one he logged in the Camping World Bowl — 8 carries for 8 yards. Maybe a clean bill of health will help Armstrong level up, but the odds of him staying healthy and unlocking a new gear as a runner feel a bit stacked. Lance Taylor has some work to do.

What happens if even one defensive back goes down for an extended period of time?

Tugging my collar nervously just thinking about this scenario. The secondary might end up being a strength simply by virtue of being led by Kyle Hamilton, but the depth there is plainly untenable. Strong safety should work itself out — Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor have similar “rocky start to their college careers, but talented enough to probably make it work” profiles, and I figure at least one should hit this year.

At corner, Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy also bring similar statures to the table, so figuring out who plays where is an action item, but not an especially concerning one. After that? The answer to the above question is pretty much “trust that Clark Lea will know what to do.” New CB coach Mike Mickens has gotten a lot out of replacement level talent in the past, and needs to continue that work with Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace, and crew over the offseason. Maybe Avery Davis flips to the defensive side of the ball (again), but we just don’t know enough about the guys waiting in the wings to feel confident in a real answer yet. All I know is that the staff better have a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type plan.

Will the offensive line actually coalesce into one of the nation’s best, or will they continue their steady, linear development?

If Jeff Quinn can’t get consistently top of the line performances from this group, it probably isn’t ever going to happen. By my count, the five returning starters have a combined 109 starts between them, even with last year’s midseason injuries to Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey. Few programs in the country can match that kind of returning game experience and talent.

Of course, only allowing 16 sacks in 13 games is genuinely elite level production. Check. But a combined 93 rushing yards in the season’s two most consequential games? Not so much. Rushing production is certainly not just on the backs of the big boys up front — Lance Taylor needs to figure out who his horses are, and craft an attack that plays to their strengths — but it goes without saying that plenty of eyes will be here throughout 2020. With veteran talent at every position and a newly reinvigorated offensive coaching staff, I think this should be Notre Dame’s best offensive line since the likes of Nelson and McGlinchey.

How close is Ian Book to his ceiling?

You may recall Chip Long’s 2019 offseason imperative to Ian Book: “be a damn game changer.” From afar, that seemed fair enough — his quarterback was fresh off an inarguably solid first year of action that ended somewhat humiliatingly against the best team in the country. But it’s worth considering that Long’s overture to the superstar inside Ian Book may have been rather misguided, as he started the year pressing and struggled to replicate 2018’s success against decent competition, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Long was appealing to a version of Book that probably doesn’t exist! And it’s honestly fine that he doesn’t exist, because it’s silly to think that every good college quarterback can transform themselves into Joe Burrow over the course of a few months.

It’s reasonable to surmise that quarterback and coordinator will have a better working relationship this year than last, due to a combination of coaching style, age, and shared experience, and that harmony will find a way to impact on-field results. Regardless, Rees has the advantage of witnessing Book’s uneven but eventually fruitful 2019 firsthand; there’s simply more information available to Rees than there was a year ago to Long. The former QB coach surely took note of what worked, what didn’t, what Ian responded to, where he made modest but important improvements, and so on.

And contrary to some conventional wisdom, Ian did materially up his game, most notably over the final six contests where he played a bit looser and looked more like himself. Per Tyler James, Book nearly doubled his production year-over-year on throws 20 yards or more down the field. His previously maligned pocket presence noticeably improved over the course of that win streak. Completion percentage ticked up a couple points in the season’s back half, and the last interception he threw all year came in game nine.

All of this is to say that Rees and the offensive staff know their quarterback better than we did a season ago, which can only help. Book won’t win the Heisman, but he can focus on being a better version of himself, combining the pinpoint mid-range accuracy of 2018 with the augmented playmaking ability and decision making skills displayed in November 2019. If that happens, Notre Dame is a legitimate playoff contender.

Can the Irish count on Kevin Austin to be a consistent playmaker?

If he remains eligible and part of the practice and game rotation, absolutely. Austin’s internal mindset is obviously unknowable, but by all accounts he has handled last year’s season-long suspension about as well as anyone could have expected. It’s not hard to imagine a breakout season for Austin where he ends up as the clear number one receiver (even though that may be a scary proposition when considering his *five* career catches, it speaks more to Austin’s potential than a dearth of positional talent). We’ll get a better idea of where he’s at during spring camp, but my gut says this is a big year for Kevin Austin.

Can Clark Lea replicate last year’s quick success developing the linebacking corps, this time in the secondary, or will Kyle Hamilton need to function as a Jaylon Smith-esque safety blanket?

Clark Lea will replicate last year’s quick success developing the secondary as he previously did with the linebackers, *and* Kyle Hamilton will function as a Jaylon Smith-esque safety blanket. That was easy.

Is it realistic to expect a first year offensive coordinator to seriously challenge Clemson and Brent Venables?

My honest initial thought is…can he do any worse than Chip Long? I genuinely don’t even mean that as a slight to Long — we all know how good that Clemson defense was — but there’s nowhere to go but up when compared to the Cotton Bowl showing, which provides me with a sort of perverse hope. Playing in the friendly confines should help considerably as well. One other data point, the offense’s performance in Rees’ initial test against Iowa State’s top 25 defense, is encouraging but ultimately inconsequential.

The good news is this test comes late in the season, so he should be more or less fully settled into the role by the first Saturday in November. Brian Kelly promoted Tommy Rees to this position knowing full well he’d have a millennial first time coordinator leading the offensive charge against Venables and the Tigers. Time will tell.

Will Brian Polian ever tell his kick returners that taking a kick out of the end zone has been empirically proven to be a waste of everyone’s time and effort?

Sorry, this isn’t a personnel question at all and I’m very much editorializing here, but watching our deep men forgo the option to fair catch, instead choosing to return and inevitably fall several yards short of where they would have been otherwise, has taken a toll on my body and soul. Mercifully, there’s data on these dubious decisions so I don’t feel like I’m going crazy — see here (pulled from the 2018 NFL season, but I’d say it translates to the college game just fine).

When taking a kick out of the end zone, returners improved on their would-be field position, the 25 yard line, only 29 percent of the time! Never return kicks out of the end zone, Brian, it’s not like we’ve scored a kick return touchdown since 2016 anyway — it’s all so cursed that we had one in the bag last season and then the returner dropped the ball, burst out laughing, and almost immediately left Notre Dame forever. Just saying. Do your offense a favor and put them as close to the other team’s end zone as possible. The 25 yard line. Thank you, that’s it, rant over.

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