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College Football Preview 2019: 12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

A second straight Playoff run will be difficult, but a talented defense should keep ND in the mix

Ian Book
Offense: After averaging 23.3 points per game under the leadership of Brandon Wimbush, the Irish offense exploded once they made the switch to Ian Book at QB. They averaged nearly two touchdowns more following the move and it was pivotal in their Playoff run. 

Book posted numbers of 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns in his nine starts and looks ready to get even better entering his senior season. He certainly is not the runner that Wimbush is, but does possess an incredibly accurate arm and showed excellent command of this Irish offense. It isn't unreasonable to think the passing numbers could explode with even more experience under his belt.

Joining Book in the backfield will be junior Jafar Armstrong, a versatile playmaker that will be used creatively in this Notre Dame offense. Armstrong had nearly 500 all-purpose yards a season ago, proving he could run the ball and catch out of the backfield. He wasn't healthy at times last year and was also buried on the depth chart behind Dexter Williams once he was back from suspension. Hopefully 100 percent, a breakout should be exploded from the veteran. Junior tailback Tony Jones Jr. adds another interesting element as a change-of-pace option. While Armstrong is a speedster, Jones does his damage as a short-yardage weapon that is a force closer to the goal line. 

The search for a new No. 1 receiver began this off-season, as the Irish must replace Miles Boykin (872 yards, 8 touchdowns), who had great chemistry with Book. The good news is that there are a number of options to help lead this aerial attack, namely senior Chase Claypool. A physical receiver with a lengthy frame (6'4", 230 pounds), Claypool has a wide catch radius and reliable hands. Former walk-on Chris Finke will also be featured heavily as a move-the-chains wide out that could be used as a type of security blanket for Book. Junior Michael Young, a big-play threat every time he touches the ball, is also returning, which means this receiver group should still be very good. 

Tight end is a position that Notre Dame develops as well as any on this roster, with guys like Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson all starring in South Bend before making the jump to the pros. Even though rock-solid Alize Mack may be departing, the TE spot should still be in good hands, as junior Cole Kmet looks ready to contribute. Kmet had 15 catches for 162 yards last season, but has to become more of a red zone threat in order to get more opportunities.

Expect good things from the Irish offensive line, which has four starters returning after a transition season moving away from standouts Quenton Nelson & Mike McGlinchey. Senior guard Tommy Kraemer is among the best in the country and Notre Dame should lean on him to open up massive gaps on the right side of this O-Line. Junior Robert Hainsey should also be an anchor on the right side of this unit, although he'll start at tackle. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Quinn Carroll, a four-star out of Minneapolis. Even though both tackles spot seem to be in good hands, it wouldn't be surprising to see Carroll get plenty of snaps.

A full season of Book should mean even greater things for this Irish offense into 2019. Just as exciting is a terrific O-Line, rock-solid receiver corps and dynamic group of running backs. There just isn't much weaknesses to speak of with this offense, meaning 37.2 PPG could once again be in play this fall.

Defense: Even though coordinator Mike Elko took more money to take over the defense at Texas A&M, ND's defense proved to be extremely stingy once again in 2018. New DC Clark Lea did a superb job getting the most out of this entire group, particularly an aggressive front seven.

There will be some important pieces in that defensive front that will need to be replaced, but enough talent still remains to feel good about the defense heading into this fall. Jerry Tillery is a key loss at defensive tackle but both end spots bring back veterans in Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Okwara is an experienced, crafty defender that led all Irish defenders with eight sacks and should once again be a factor. Kareem appears to have a little bit more upside as a pass rusher due to his quickness and high motor, although the production hasn't always been there. Things aren't quite as set at both D-Tackle positions in this 4-3 defensive scheme, but there are options there. True freshman Jacob Lacey is a possible starter right away coming out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Long-time starters Drue Tranquil and Te'Von Coney must also be replaced at linebacker. While neither were necessarily All-American talents, their impressive instincts and veteran experience helped the pairing rack up a bunch of tackles in their Irish career, including 123 for Coney in '18. The good news is that this linebacker corps does have a solid starting point in senior Asmar Bilal, the slated starter at middle linebacker. Bilal is a tremendous athlete who recorded 50 tackles a season ago but will have to adjust to being the new leader in the middle for this defense. Sophomore Jack Lamb is going to see a massive increase in snaps and likely to take over at outside 'backer with Bilal on the move to the inside. Coming off a redshirt campaign where he impressed a lot of the coaching staff, Lamb could see a breakthrough.

Notre Dame's pass defense was decent last season, but with three starters set to return in the defensive backfield, it could get even better. This position group is led by former Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, a gritty, hard-nosed defender that managed 95 tackles a season ago. Playing at free safety, Gilman is free to roam all around the field for this defense and he has proven he can make plays. Joining Gilman at the safety position is SS Jalen Elliott, another proven veteran. Elliott is quite the playmaker, picking off four passes and deflecting four passes. That duo will form one of the country's best 1-2 safety combinations and will help out the Irish cornerbacks. Senior Troy Pride looks like the likely No. 1 CB, but he'll need a running mate to join him at corner. Fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford can play either nickel or corner and could be primed to return as a starter after suffering his third season-ending injury in 2018.

This ND defense is well-coached and experienced, which should serve them well as they replace some expected losses on the defense. Lea proved he could do some great work with on this side of the ball and he'll have to be creative in working on his area of expertise, the linebackers, to get them up to speed. Once that happens, with a superb secondary and two skilled pass-rushing defensive ends, the Irish defense should definitely be a Top 15-20 unit.

Special Teams: Head coach Brian Kelly and ST coordinator Brian Polian will have to replace long-time kicker Justin Yoon, the model of consistency during his Irish career. Junior Jonathan Doerer appears to be the favorite to replace Yoon, who was 17 of 21 on field goals last season. Replacing big-legged Tyler Newsome at punter must also be a top priority for this team.

Bottom Line: A 31-0 drubbing at the hands of eventual National Champion Clemson left a sour taste in the mouth of Irish fans, but 2018 was still quite a success for this program. Putting together an encore doesn't appear to be too difficult for the Irish with most of the important checkmarks returning including a returning QB, lots of skill position talent, an experienced defense and continuity on the coaching staff. Granted, the schedule does appear to have more land mines to trip up on in 2019, with tough road trips to Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. That will likely ensure that the Irish do not return to the Playoff, although this is a program that has survived daunting schedules before. Instead, the ceiling for this team looks more like a ten-win squad ready to play in a New Year's Six Bowl. It looks like, if things do work out, ND is ready to earn their fourth double-digit win season in five years, something that hasn't been done since Lou Holtz stalked the sideline in South Bend.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2
Offensive MVP: QB Ian Book
Defensive MVP: S Alohi Gilman
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Cole Kmet
Impact Freshman: DT Jacob Lacey

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-5
2015: 10-3
2016: 4-8
2017: 10-3
2018: 12-1

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