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College Football Preview 2018: 20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

If the offense can find some balance, Irish have good chance of first back-to-back double-digit win seasons since '92-'93

Alize Mack

Offense: Notre Dame's offense was predicated around the ground attack in 2017, as the group had the nation's seventh best rush offense. Running back Josh Adams ran for 1,430 yards, QB Brandon Wimbush added 803, and the offensive line featured two first-round NFL Draft selections in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Everybody but Wimbush left this off-season, leaving the Irish searching for some answers.

Wimbush played very well over the first half of '17 and finished the season with 30 total touchdowns, but he is facing significant pressure to hold down the starting quarterback spot from sophomore Ian Book. Book ended up with two crucial late touchdown passes in ND's Citrus Bowl victory over LSU and looked superb, but he is less experienced, and Wimbush seemed to outperform him in the spring. If Wimbush can find some better accuracy (completed less than 50 percent of his passes last season), he should be able to hold off Book and newcomer Phil Jurkovec, a highly touted signal-caller from Pittsburgh.

Replacing Adams at back will be difficult, but senior Dexter Williams seems up to the task. Williams has always had serious upside, but injuries have taken their toll over the course of his time in South Bend. Now fully healthy, he could be a real breakout star for this offense. 

Notre Dame will also have to find a new No. 1 target after the departure of Equanimeous St. Brown. St. Brown had 515 receiving yards a season ago, proving to be one of the few options in the aerial attack that could really take the top off the defense with his speed. Head coach Brian Kelly and OC Chip Long are hopeful juniors Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin can step up in a big way. Claypool finished second on the team with 402 receiving yards last year and remains a dangerous weapon when he gets in the open field, while Boykin flashed serious potential towards the end of 2017 and is a red zone threat. ND always seems to get production from the tight end spot, and don't expect that to change this season, with junior Alize Mack back and ready to improve on last year's 19 receptions.

The O-Line does lose two huge stars in McGlinchey and Nelson, but every other significant piece returns. Senior center Sam Mustipher is likely to be the anchor of the group, and Alex Bars and Tommy Kraemer should keep the Irish strong at the guard positions. 

Despite having a pass offense that was 103rd in the nation, ND averaged over 34 PPG in 2017, a testament to how fantastic their ground game was, and how well they were able to executive in the red zone (76 percent TD rate). There remains a strong chance the offense takes a slight step back without Adams and some other key contributors, but I don't envision a drastic fall. In fact, if Wimbush or Book can really seize control at QB, it could actually be more balanced, with Claypool and Boykin ready to break out on the perimeter.

Defense: In 2017, new coordinator Mike Elko orchestrated a master turnaround of the Irish defense, a group that played with significantly more physicality and confidence. The defense ended up ranking 31st in the country in scoring defense (21.5 PPG), leading to Elko earning a massive raise to take over the same gig at Texas A&M. That left Kelly to promote linebackers coach Clark Lea to DC duties. Lea has done a superb job developing the LB position in South Bend over his time there, and the unit has plenty of experience back.

Up front, Lea will run a 4-3, and the line should be especially stout in the interior, where seniors Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner both return. Tillery is one of the most physically imposing linemen in the entire country; he stands 6'7", 305 pounds but is incredibly quick with a powerful first step. After managing nine tackles for loss in 2017, he should be an even greater force this season. Junior end Khalid Kareem flashed serious potential last season under Elko, and it will be interesting to see whether he can continue that growth under a slightly different scheme.

Lea's speciality is, of course, linebackers and he returns two real senior stars in Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquil. Coney led all ND defenders with 116 tackles a year ago and remains one of the rangiest defenders in the entire country. Tranquil added 85 and remained an important factor as a coverage linebacker. Lea and staff are also hoping junior Asmar Bilal can possibly be a breakout star at the open strong-side linebacker position. 

Depth and talent abounds in the secondary, where veterans Julian Love and Nick Coleman return, and the Irish bring in Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. Love should form quite a 1-2 combo at corner with fellow junior Shaun Crawford. Both play bigger than they are, and are really skilled in man defense. Coleman had 43 tackles in 2017 and remains an important piece because of his versatility, as he can help out at either safety or nickel. Meanwhile, Gilman sat out all last season and impressed in practices and big things are expected.

After a disastrous 2016, Elko really gave this group a major facelift, and Lea should be a major beneficiary of that this year. He returns nine starters and key contributors at every level, including an All-American candidate in Te'von Coney. It isn't crazy to think that this could be one of the Top 25 defenses in the country, and an important advantage a rough schedule.

Special Teams: There should be no concerns for Brian Kelly surrounding his special teams. Kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome are both returning for their senior seasons, and form one of the country's best tandems there. Neither kick returner or punt returner is settled at the moment, leaving the Irish with an interesting fall camp battle.

It is hard to know which version of Notre Dame we will be getting in 2018, after their uneven 2016 and '17 campaigns. Last season, this team looked like a serious Playoff contender early on but came out flat against Miami and Stanford later on. Replacing underrated contributors such as Nelson and McGlinchey will be a challenge, but ND does return a ton offensively, and the D should still be stingy even with Elko gone. So my guess? This doesn't look like a Playoff-caliber team unless Wimbush takes a huge step forward, but they should still be very good. Double-digit victories and a good bowl big seems about right for what is a deep football team in South Bend.

Team Projections
Record: 9-3
Offensive MVP: WR Chase Claypool
Defensive MVP: LB Te'von Coney
Breakout Player of the Year: S Alohi Gilman

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