(un)knowing

Every coming college football season brings with it a laundry list of questions, most unanswerable to some degree due simply to the nature of the sport. The most important and tangible labor is performed by, obviously, college students, which is already a shoddy proposition as far as predictions go. But we predict anyway, because we can and because not knowing what’s to come is part of the fun. This year, though, a sole thought keeps bouncing around my brain — do we have any fucking clue what this season of Notre Dame football will look like? At all?

Let’s just admit that, no, not really even a little bit. We all yearn for precedented times, for scheduled matchups with Southern Cal and Stanford, for road trips to road games, and the like. The season very well may still get called off, as I’ve previously predicted. Who knows. But I do think there’s a sound argument to be made that Notre Dame, and this Notre Dame team in particular, might be well-suited to perform well under deeply strange conditions.

Let’s start, as one does, at quarterback. Did I begin last season by going out on a limb and asserting that Ian Book was already the best QB of the Kelly era? Yeah. Did that kinda sorta blow up in my face when he struggled intermittently through September and October? Yeah. Have I learned any sort of lesson as a result? No sir. Your starting quarterback does not need to be Joe Burrow to have an outsized impact on the season, and the value of incumbency in this current moment can hardly be overstated.

Book is an obvious team leader and captain, and will be a steadying voice in the locker room and huddle. He’s tasked with keeping the team hyper-focused on the task at hand as campus life remains highly irregular; it’s something the team was at least able to do during the offseason, when they helped set a national standard for running a clean and healthy program. The back half of his 2019 campaign was quietly revitalizing — our guy has a four game running streak without a single interception. I hear shouts of “but there’s question marks at wide receiver and running back!” and I calmly counter with: I do not care. We’ll explore those position groups shortly, but I mostly don’t care about that skill position uncertainty because of the guys in the trenches.

Pete Sampson is correct to assert that “simply being good this season would be a disappointment” for the offensive line. Every starter returns, and four of those five starters are seniors. There are some nagging injury concerns, but depth should be sufficient enough to plug any holes. There’s just too much veteran talent for this group to be anything but a rock — it’s a given that Book will have plenty of time to throw the ball, just gotta make some material improvements in the run game and this group could be the best in the country (even if no individual reaches the Nelson/Martin/Stanley/etc. pantheon). If it feels like Jeff Quinn’s tenure has been an endless string of “make or break” assertions, I get it, but it really rings true right now.

Speaking of veteran line talent, Daelin Hayes is another reason to feel good about this team. He should be gearing up for his first campaign on an NFL roster, but last year’s season-ending injury means he’s back for one more run in blue and gold. As this offseason proved, Hayes is a clear leader on the defensive front, having made his voice heard on issues far more important than football. That leadership should go a long way under these circumstances. Paired on the edge with Ade Ogundeji (the Ovie Oghoufo hype train is steadily gaining steam too, and I’m on board), ND’s pass rush may not flash quite as much dynamism as it has in years past, but should be another source of consistency. And if Isaiah Foskey pops? Maybe that dynamism won’t be gone for long after all.

Let’s not fret about high end talent on the defense, though — Kyle Hamilton (likely quarantined in August, but back on the practice field now, praise your deity of choice) is the best safety in the country. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is one of the best linebackers in the country, and Drew White matched his tackle total in 2019. I don’t think I could genuinely fret about a Clark Lea-led defense if I tried — ahh, no, we have to replace some key contributors in the secondary — whatever, some permutation of Houston Griffith-Isaiah Pryor-DJ Brown-Shaun Crawford will figure out the strong safety spot. Grad transfer Nick McCloud should be able to contribute immediately, providing a hugely important third starting option at corner after (TBD) Crawford and TaRiq Bracy. With MTA and Kurt Hinish returning, the interior is stout, and there’s plenty of contenders who could fill that last linebacker spot, it’ll be just fine, believe me.

This isn’t to gloss over the very real attrition the program faced this offseason — a year ago, we knew Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet would generate tons and tons of offense. We knew Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott, and Troy Pride would anchor the secondary, and that Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem would keep opposing tackles up at night. But there’s institutional depth and knowledge to deal with these losses, and fresh faces to get excited about. Former Buckeye Pryor has a blue chip pedigree, and McCloud was an important contributor at NC State, lending some immediate legitimacy to a secondary that would have otherwise been a waving red flag. Bennett Skowronek is no Kevin Austin, but feels like the surest thing a wide receiver transfer to ND has been in a while (barring injury, of course).

If the incoming vets don’t inspire enough passion, may I interest you in a helping of Chris Tyree, and Jordan Johnson, and Michael Mayer? That’s the sort of freshman skill position trio that Notre Dame fans, frankly, do not see all that often (ISD’s Jamie Uyeyama recently compared Mayer to both Kyle Hamilton and Tyler Eifert, so, let your imaginations run wild). All could (should?) plausibly get regular snaps, especially since the new pre-Clemson opposition couldn’t even muster up a combined .500 record last year (hehe conference scheduling). There’s depth and talent at running back, but no every-down starter — a perfect opportunity for Tyree. There’s depth and talent at receiver, but no clear go-to quite yet — a perfect opportunity for Johnson. There’s depth and talent at tight end, but Tommy Tremble won’t replace Cole Kmet alone — a perfect opportunity for Mayer (and Kevin Bauman!).

Braden Lenzy wears number 0 now, which is a top five reason I want this season to actually happen, and he’ll only get better as a pure receiver. Lawrence Keys is also going to be very good. I hope the staff is open to using Jafar Armstrong outside of a leading back role — is he actually a wide receiver? With Osi Ekwonu and Kendall Abdul-Rahman moving to RB, maybe! — but things clicking for him in any capacity would be a boon. The running back room is crowded, but any of Kyren Williams (here’s hoping), C’Bo Flemister, or Jahmir Smith could realistically take a leap and be the guy, even if they can’t shift into that next gear quite like Dexter Williams.

Like I said, we don’t have answers. But it doesn’t take too close of a read on this team to foresee another top ten result, and even an ACC Championship appearance (lol). Without USC, Wisconsin, Stanford, and Navy, the slate is easier than it would be in normal times, full stop. There’s a built in ramp-up before the schedule’s biggest challenges arise. There are clear leaders in the locker room, something you can’t fake ever, and especially can’t fake now. And I haven’t even touched on COACH TOM REES yet — maybe a new coordinator is cause for concern, but right now it’s imperative to employ staff who can understand and speak to player concerns directly, and I doubt there’s anyone on campus who can do that better than Tommy.

I realize that this season preview of sorts has been a lot of “remember that guy? He’s pretty good!” but I really do think this team is in a good spot, at least when it comes to controllable factors. The university’s other initial failings dwarf the successes of the team in reigning in Covid outbreaks, but, for what it’s worth, the team knows what they’re doing. Lea, Rees, Mike Elston, Lance Taylor, Mike Mickens and crew make up arguably the best coaching staff the school has seen this side of the millennium. Not that we’d blame any player for even a second for opting out of this season — anyone who would do so is not our friend — but the team is fully intact for the time being, which is an advantage, even if it’s icky to put in those terms.

All that being said, this could go any of a million ways. Whole swaths of this or any team could be thrust into quarantine protocol at a moment’s notice, another reason this season feels, again, icky and unknowable. A subplot that hasn’t got as much attention as it probably will in the coming months due to [the end of normal everyday life as we know it] is that teams are facing a highly uneven ramp-up, with missing players and irregular practice schedules, so it’s inevitable that the actual gameplay itself will be sloppier than we’re used to. It can be hard to find genuine beauty in the world, and in “amateur” athletics, nowadays, but these guys will do their best to give it to us, and I’m at least already grateful for that.

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