Defense could lead Notre Dame to playoff
By JOSH STROPE
For The Times Leader
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Last October, Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff standings. The Fighting Irish were going to crash the party and leave a conference champion on the outside looking in.
Then Notre Dame went to Miami and got stomped by the Hurricanes, 41-8.
A late-season swoon has been an unwanted pattern for a Notre Dame team that has seemingly been knocking on the playoff door during recent seasons (take away 2016).
Is this finally the year?
Many experts have Notre Dame favored in every game it plays this season, not like means any thing.
But if the Fighting Irish, ranked No. 11 in the initial Coaches Poll, open the season with a victory against Michigan — especially with the hoopla of ESPN’s College Gameday in town — that noise is only going to get louder.
Brian Kelly is entering his ninth year as coach of the Irish with probably the best defense since the 2012 team that advanced to the BCS National Championship.
Brandon Wimbush returns at quarterback. Last season the senior passed for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns. When he was on, he was on. When he bad, he was really bad as evidenced by being benched in the Miami loss.
With the offense struggling in the Music City Bowl against LSU, Wimbush was benched again. Backup Ian Book rallied the Irish to a victory against the Tigers.
So after poor outings late in the season, what gives Irish fans the confidence that Wimbush is the answer?
One reason could be his legs. Wimbush is the team’s leading returning rusher, carrying 141 times for 803 yards and 16 scores.
Kelly has been very high on his veteran signalcaller this offseason, saying he had “A-plus for summer preparation and has focused on his leadership and technical skills.”
Book will begin the season as the backup, followed closely by incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec.
Jurkovec, a highly touted prospect out of Pittsburgh, has created a buzz and Kelly has said he expects him to play at some point this season. If Wimbush or Book can’t get the job done, Jurkovec could be forced into action early and may hold the spot for the next four years.
The offensive line has been a big part of Notre Dame’s success in recent seasons. Just how good were they? Two of them went in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft this April — Quenton Nelson (No. 6, Indianapolis Colts) and Mike McGlinchey (No. 9, San Francisco 49ers).
Add on losing well-respected offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to the Chicago Bears, you might expect the line to take a step back.
As Gameday’s Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”
The Irish will be breaking in a few new faces, but the talent is still there to stay one of the top units in the country.
Guard Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher are a pair of senior co-captains that are being looked at as first-rounders in early mock NFL drafts.
Liam Eichenberg (6-foot-6, 308 pounds) played right tackle last season and will move over the left side, replacing McGlinchey, to protect Wimbush’s blind side.
Bars played right guard last season and will take over for Nelson at left guard. Tommy Kraemer will man right guard. Sophomore Robert Hainsey will get the first crack at right tackle with reserves Josh Lugg and Trevor Ruhland in the mix.
That line will need to be solid in order to help a running game that will clearly be the biggest question mark on the Irish squad.
Josh Adams rushed for 1,430 yards last season before leaving for the NFL (signing as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles).
After Wimbush, the next top runner was Deon McIntosh, who has since been dismissed from the team, and Dexter Williams, who is on the roster, but may face disciplinary actions.
Tony Jones Jr., who rushed for 232 yards and three touchdowns during an injury-plagued season is sharing the load with converted sophomores Jafar Armstrong (receiver) and Avery Davis (quarterback) and true freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.
Miles Boykin caught the game-winning touchdown in that Music City Bowl victory and he leads a solid, but mostly unproven class of receivers. Chase Claypool and Michael Young will also start for the Irish in their three-receiver looks.
Armstrong, Chris Finke and Javon McKinkley will the backups.
Alize Mack will be the starting tight end, joined by Cole Kmet.
Despite defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaving for Texas A&M and Clark Lea getting his first job in the role, optimism is high for a unit returning the defensive leaders in nearly every major stat category.
Khalid Kareem, Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes will be tough to run against along the defensive line.
The linebackers will consist of Te’Von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal.
Julian Love and Shaun Crawford headline a ballhawking secondary, with Nick Coleman (free) and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman (strong) at safety. Troy Pride, Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott will also see valuable minutes.