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College Football Preview 2021: 9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Kyren Williams, Notre Dame


9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

A shift back to a normal independent schedule won't be a breeze, but another Playoff run isn't out of the question

2020 Review
For the first time in their long history as a football program, Notre Dame played a full conference schedule, joining the ACC in a one-year run. It was an awfully successful stint, as the Irish defeated the Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson Tigers and entered the ACC Championship Game undefeated. The Tigers would get vengeance on them with a dominant 34-10 victory, but Notre Dame had a strong enough resume to still gain entry into the four-team CFB Playoff field. They were no match for the eventual National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide, but a 10-2 mark was still a notable success for a program that has become among the most consistent anywhere in the nation. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: Quarterback Ian Book leaves South Bend as one of, if not the, most accomplished quarterbacks in Notre Dame history. He ranks second on the all-time passing list and finishes with the most victories in school history, while gaining entry to a pair of CFB Playoffs during his tenure. 

The race to replace Book got even more interesting early on in the off-season when Wisconsin's Jack Coan announced he would transfer to Notre Dame. Coan had a solid 2019 leading the Badger offense, throwing for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent of his throws, but missed all of 2020 with injury. He's the type of quarterback that is a superb fit in this offense, as a methodical signal-caller who doesn't turn the ball over. The addition won't put ND over the top, but it will be good enough to keep the offense chugging along.

There's still a chance one of the other quarterbacks on the roster could pass Coan for the starting job, although it appears unlikely. Redshirt freshman Brendon Clark threw just three passes last fall but remains a factor, but it's true freshman Tyler Buchner who has many Irish fans interested. Buchner's one of the highest rated QB recruits head coach Brian Kelly has ever signed and he enrolled in the spring. This appears to be a "bridging the gap" situation, where Coan starts for a year before Buchner is handed the keys to the program.

The Irish may have one of the nation's best 1-2 combinations at tailback. Kyren Williams emerged out of fall camp as the feature guy and never looked back, rushing for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was ACC Rookie of the Year and a Freshman All-American, but doesn't appear to be receiving as much hype as many other young running backs around the country. He's good enough to build on those numbers, but backup Chris Tyree is also likely to command a larger role. Tyree is the perfect complement to Williams, an explosive speed demon who plays a massive role in opening up this offense. He notched 496 yards as a true freshman, while averaging nearly seven yards per rush. Veteran C'Bo Flemister is also back in town and could be used as a third-down weapon.

Even with quarterback unsettled and the offensive line retooling, the greatest question mark on ND's roster in 2021 is at receiver. This position just has not gotten the type of production you'd like the last several seasons, and that was before two key options, Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, departed. There is certainly potential here, but who steps up as the top guy? Junior Avery Davis is the best bet, coming off a 2020 in which he went for 322 yards and came on strong down the stretch. Sophomores Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy have gotten plenty of attention the last few years as high-upside youngsters, but neither has been able to cash in on that potential just yet. Don't be surprised if they end up being passed up by some of the true freshmen that this staff brought in over the off-season, namely Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie. Styles enrolled over the spring and has received plenty of hype, while Colzie is considered the higher rated prospect by most services.

Although receiver may be settled, Notre Dame has a star at tight end in Michael Mayer. Even though he entered 2020 in a backup role behind the now-gone Tommy Tremble, Mayer made his presence felt, as he totaled 450 yards on 42 receptions. Now that he's clearly one of the go-to guys in this offense, don't be surprised if he garners John Mackey Award consideration as the nation's top tight end. Sophomore George Takacs is also likely to feature in an offense that often runs two tight end sets.

No school in the country is developing elite offensive linemen at the pace that Notre Dame is. It seems like every single year they send a new wave of blockers to the pros, including three players who were drafted (Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, and Robert Hainsey) in the 2021 NFL Draft. Those departures do leave the group rebuilding a bit, but you trust that this staff will be able to figure it out. Sophomore Jarrett Patterson is the lone returning starter and will anchor the unit, but there's a bunch of potential out at the tackle spots. Tosh Baker, who played in one game as a true freshman last season, will likely battle newcomer Blake Fisher at left tackle, while junior Josh Lugg is the favorite on the right side. The addition of Cain Madden, who made 31 starts during his time with Marshall, was one of the more underrated transfers of the off-season. 

The Irish offense does lose some key pieces, but the program has recruited well enough over the past half-decade to keep things rolling. There's still plenty of star power, with Williams, Tyree and Mayer, and Jack Coan is a solid, if rather underwhelming, signal-caller. The O-Line and receivers are questions, but that gives added opportunity for some of the youth to step up early on.

Defense: Brian Kelly's promotion of Clark Lea to defensive coordinator following the departure of Mike Elko to Texas A&M proved to be an elite coaching decision, as Lea put together some of the nation's best defenses over the last few seasons. Lea himself parlayed the success into the head coaching position at his alma mater, Vanderbilt.

How did Kelly respond to Lea's departure? Only by grabbing one of the hottest coordinator names on the market in Cincinnati's Marcus Freeman. Freeman put together tremendous defenses during his stint with the Bearcats and openly flirted with the LSU DC job before coming to South Bend. He takes over a defense that was hit hard by attrition in some spots, but still loaded with talent.

The Irish defense got a major boost when defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa announced he would be returning for a fifth season, headlining a group that brings back most of their key contributors from 2020. Tagovailoa-Amosa, the cousin of Tua and Taulia, made nine starts last season and was All-ACC but is likely to make the shift from defensive tackle to end. He'll be complemented on the other end by redshirt frosh Isaiah Foskey, who managed 4.5 sacks in a rotational role a year ago. Up the middle, powerful nose guard Kurt Hinish fits the Notre Dame mold, while Jayson Ademilola is expected to step into a starting role after making a pair of starts last season. 

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah evolved from a low-rated recruit into the eventual Butkus Award winner in 2020, finishing with 62 tackles and 9.5 TFL. His absence will leave a massive hole for Freeman and staff to fill, but the linebacker corps still has ample experience. Juniors Drew White and Shayne Simon both return and while neither have All-American talent, they've proven they can play at a high level. White, who will start at middle linebacker, has demonstrated an increased ability to get downhill and make plays in opposing backfields. There are several candidates aiming to take over for Owusu-Koramoah, who played in a hybrid role last fall. Former Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor didn't make a major impact here last year but could be in store for bigger things, while redshirt freshman Jack Kiser will also feature in. 

The Notre Dame secondary is a really interesting mix, with some massive holes but also legit superstar talent. That talent is led by free safety Kyle Hamilton, who should be a top candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award this fall. After showing flashes as a true freshman, Hamilton built on it with a huge 2020 campaign, where he led the team in tackles, totaled 4.5 tackles for loss, and had seven pass deflections. His size (6'4") and closing speed make him a major factor in pass defense, but he can also come up and defend the run. The Irish will also lean on the services of Clarence Lewis, who came out of nowhere to put together a surprisingly strong freshman season. He had 33 tackles in six starts a year ago and played particularly well down the stretch. 

The questions in the secondary are at the other corner spot, as well as strong safety, where Nick McCloud and Shaun Crawford move on. Houston Griffith is expected to slide into Crawford's spot at strong safety, but corner is a real concern. Redshirt freshman K.J. Wallace has seen some playing time there the last two seasons and may be able to handle it, while Cam Hart should also compete. Hart began his career at receiver before moving to the defensive side of the ball, but doesn't have a ton of experience to show for it. Junior TaRiq Bracy should also factor in, as he split time with Lewis for most of last season.

Even with the reigning Butkus Award winner now playing on Sundays and two notable losses in the defensive backfield, Freeman walks into a nice situation. There's proven experience at every level, and Hamilton is good enough to be the MVP of the defense. 

Special Teams: Kicker Jonathan Doerer and punter Jay Bramblett are both returning for special teams coordinator Brian Polian, giving the Irish two weapons in the field position battle. ND is hoping Doerer can become slightly more consistent, as his numbers were just mediocre in 2020. In the return game, Chris Tyree flashed potential, and ND will give him even more excuses to see the field this year.

Bottom Line: Although people love to hate on them, Notre Dame has clearly cemented themselves as one of the most consistent programs in major college football. They've now had four straight seasons of at least 10 victories after the shocking 4-8 2016 season, and they've gone to the Playoff twice in that span. Another entry into the four-team field seems unlikely considering the losses this team suffered, but I don't envision a steep drop-off either. Coan will play a stabilizing role for the offense as they move on from Book at quarterback and Freeman's defense should once again be a top-tier group. Additionally, the schedule should lighten up slightly, as the Irish move back to independent status. A slate that includes Wisconsin, Cincinnati, UNC, and USC isn't easy by any means, but ND happens to get every single one of those games at home, with the lone exception being Wisconsin, which will be played at Soldier Field. There's enough here for another double-digit season to be in the cards, although much more than that may be a stretch.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2
Offensive MVP: RB Kyren Williams
Defensive MVP: S Kyle Hamilton
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Michael Mayer
Impact Freshman: WR Deion Colzie

Recruiting Breakdown
Notre Dame landed a Top 10 class nationally, with a nice mix of skill position talent, as well as linemen. Offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler may get an opportunity to start right away, especially Fisher, who is the top player from inside the state of Indiana. Wide outs Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should also see snaps as they are at need positions, with Colzie being quite the big recruiting get. The Irish went into the state of Georgia to land the 6'4", 190 pound weapon. Farther down the list, Notre Dame landed a few players that aren't likely to see the field much in 2021, but have upside in the long term. Corner Phillip Riley was a nice pickup from Florida who was once committed to USC, while tight end Cane Berrong is also a get from SEC territory. With this group, Kelly and staff have proven that even though ND is not recruiting comparable to the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, they're still a national brand that can move into the Southeast and land big names.

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