Somehow, someway, pandemic and all, it seems like Notre Dame football in 2020 is actually happening. I can’t believe it either, but it’s happening. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been keeping everything at arm’s length for the past few months — getting hyped about this year’s team only to see all the squad’s potential rendered meaningless before a single snap seemed like a decidedly avoidable agony. One that, at the very least, didn’t require us to dance through our annual autumn crescendo of hope before getting knocked off our feet.
But it’s happening. And we may as well get excited, because that’s what we do (and there’s not much else to look forward to this fall). So let’s dive past the known commodities on the roster, the returning starters across the offensive line, veteran quarterback and playmakers in the defensive back 7. Let’s breeze over the ACC schedule graphic you’ve seen retweeted dozens of times and the absurdity of bringing back USF (‘11 was my first game as a student, enough said). Let’s run through some under-the-radar storylines — players, position battles and season-long dynamics that haven’t made many headlines, but might make all the difference as this unprecedented season plays out.
Sure, recent recruiting hauls may not be following through on Brian Kelly’s stated goal to bring home top-five classes. But the grad transfer market might be just the right inefficiency in the college football landscape for Notre Dame to lean into and close the final gap with college football’s elite. Notre Dame isn’t always the easiest place for new players to hit the ground running fresh out of high school as they learn to balance their academic burdens and a packed football schedule. It’s even more reason to bring in veteran transfer additions who already understand what it takes to make it at a major program, on and off the field.
Safety Isaiah Pryor grabbed this class’s earliest transfer headlines when he left Ohio State for South Bend. While reports out of camp seem to suggest Shaun Crawford might be in the driver’s seat to start next to Kyle Hamilton at safety in the base D, Pryor’s physical presence in the box will certainly be a valuable piece of the rotation on rushing downs. And two more recent transfers might walk into starting roles; for corner Nick McCloud, who was an impact contributor at NC State, the path is easy — he brings size and experience at a boundary position that was a major question mark before his transfer was announced. Former Northwestern receiver Bennett Skowronek seems bound to make a similarly meaningful impact, even if he’s a part of a larger rotation. He’s the receiver with the most production under his belt on the entire roster, and with Kevin Austin’s injury he’s in line to be a go-to for Ian Book early in the season. Setting aside the failure-to-launch that has been Trevor Speights’ medically-postponed transfer to Notre Dame, grad transfers might be the x-factor that push this Irish team over the top.
TIGHT END U NEVER DIES
Most of the hype out of camp at the tight end position is centered around Michael Mayer, the five-star freshman that looks primed to make an impact from the jump. That’s a big deal, but what really makes the tight end group special is the depth and variety of skill sets present. Brock Wright is exactly what we think he is — experienced, a great blocker and an all-around reliable player who will probably come up with a few big catches this year. And Tommy Tremble could be the star — a versatile chess piece with uncommon speed for his position who can create mismatches all over the field. It would be a surprise if Tommy Rees wasn’t spending plenty of time scheming up creative ways for Ian Book to get Tremble the ball. If they can make it happen consistently, it should add another explosive element to an offense stocked with potential playmakers.
THE MICKENS EFFECT
This year’s coaching staff looks like it could end of being one of Kelly’s best ever, and it’s due in large part to the addition of new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. Mickens was a talented player under Brian Kelly a decade ago at Cincinnati, and at 33 he’s already built a solid reputation as a coach. In just two years coaching corners at Cincinnati, Mickens established himself as a tireless recruiter and developer of talent. Last year, he turned true freshman Ahmad Gardner, who wasn’t even listed in 247’s top 1,500 recruits (yes, with two zeros) into a freshman All-American who’s already getting NFL buzz. He’s certainly got more to work with at Notre Dame, even before the loaded groups he’s pulling together over the next couple of recruiting classes make it to campus.
The unproven corners on this Irish roster have traits that Mickens would have probably killed to work with at Cincy — from Ramon Henderson’s elite speed to Cam Hart’s length, there are a handful of young players ready to be coached up. If he can get even one of those guys to pop, the secondary suddenly looks like a real strength of this team. When you take into account his personal experience playing under Kelly, the relatability he brings, and his technical savvy — recruits have cited Mickens’ tangible advice on how he’ll improve their game as a driving force behind their commitments — you have to be optimistic about what he can get out of this group.
ESPECIALLY STABLE TEAMS
Remember last season, when uncertain situations at kicker and punter were easily in our top 3 biggest worries for the team? Well this year (knock on wood) should be smooth sailing — Jonathan Doerer stepped in last season and put in a dominating run that rivals the best years in Justin Yoon’s career, and Jay Bramblett was decidedly solid, especially for a freshman. They’re back this year, and ready to build on those impressive debut campaigns. That consistency matters — kickers and punters need confidence, especially ones as young as Doerer and Bramblett. Another year together means more reps and more time to build chemistry as Bramblett holds for Doerer on field goal attempts. Don’t be surprised if we see even more improvement from both specialists this year. And there’s talent all across the Special Teams units — we’ll all be blessed to watch one more year of All-BK Team Special Teams lock Bo Bauer screaming downhill on kick coverage.
If there’s any piece of Brian Polian’s unit to fret over heading into this season, it’s the battle at long snapper. John Shannon, 2019 Patrick Mannelly Award Winner as the nation’s best long snapper (really), has moved on and it’s up to Alex Peitsch and Michael Vinson to battle it out for the job. Vinson was first in line to take snaps when Shannon was dinged up in 2019, but Peitsch enters as a freshman with a serious pedigree — he’s as five-star, blue-chip, can’t miss as long snappers get (for real). Kohl’s, a series of national camps, competitions and rankings that measures the best in high schools specialists ranked Peitsch as the number-one snapper in the country in the 2020 class. They literally only focus on snapping, kicking and punting, so they certainly know more than we do, and they called him “truly one of the most impressive snappers [they] have ever had the privilege to coach.” So it’s safe to say he’s pretty good. That said, ND lists him at 6’1”, 205 — certainly smaller than your average lineman. But you can’t really hit the long snapper without seeing a flag, so there’s room for Peitsch to step in and seize the job. The role is an important one — Doerer’s big leg won’t mean much if he can’t get consistent snaps — so it’s important that someone earns the gig and runs with it leaving camp.
Let’s face it — our first (and hopefully only) schedule as full ACC members is decidedly softer than the one we originally planned to face. Replacing USC, Stanford and especially Wisconsin with North Carolina, Florida State and… Syracuse? has left us with an undeniably easier path to both the ACC Championship and the College Football Playoff. To make things even easier, the ACC has been hit with its share of notable opt-outs due to COVID-19 concerns. It feels weird to think about the impact of these decisions on football games (and good on the players for putting their health and that of those around them first), but it’s going to make a difference.
Take Wake Forest. Not only did 2019 starting QB Jamie Newman transfer to Georgia before ultimately opting out, stud wide receiver Sage Surratt, a jump-ball dominator and future early NFL Draft Pick, also stepped back from the 2020 season. Just like that, their offense looks like a much less complicated problem for Clark Lea’s defense to solve. Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman, a first-round-caliber defensive tackle, is also out. North Carolina, Duke, and Florida State have each lost multiple players. And outside of the ND schedule, Miami takes on the year without standout edge rusher Gregory Rousseau and Virginia Tech is down Caleb Farley, who may be the nation’s best corner. It’s honestly surprising Notre Dame has come out unscathed, and probably a credit to the team’s standard-setting safe conduct. In large part because of that, the path to take on Clemson twice and get a swing at a title, ACC or otherwise, couldn’t be much smoother.