ND Looking to Rebound After a Lackluster Season
By JOSH STROPE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly built up a lot of goodwill with his early success at Notre Dame. Unfortunately for him, even one 4-8 season doesn’t sit well in South Bend.
Notre Dame entered last season the preseason No. 10. A double-overtime, opening-game loss to Texas shot the Irish down the rankings and they never recovered, stumbling to the first losing season in Kelly’s tenure.
Despite the lopsided record, through the first 11 games, Notre Dame had actually outscored its opponents and all its losses came within a score, giving the team hope that if it can find a way to finish out games, the Fighting Irish could find themselves back in the playoff conversation.
Kelly made sweeping changes in the offseason, bringing in six new coaches, including new offensive coordinator (Memphis’ Chip Long), defensive coordinator (Wake Forest’s Mike Elko) and special teams coordinator (former Irish assistant Brian Polian).
On the field, the biggest change will come under center.
DeShone Kizer left early for the NFL Draft and was selected in the second round by the Cleveland Browns. Malik Zaire graduated and transferred to Florida for his final season.
That leaves the job firmly in the hands of redshirt junior Brandon Wimbush.
Wimbush saw some action in his freshman season, but was held out last season. Still, Kelly and his staff have all the confidence in their new signalcaller.
Wimbush is mobile, strong-armed and fits the mold of what Kelly and Long are looking for. Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis are the backups.
To help the learning curve for Wimbush will be a talented set of receivers to throw to.
Leading the way is Equanimeous St. Brown. The junior wideout caught 58 passes for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. He was named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List.
Joining him will be sophomore Chase Claypool, C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke, Miles Boykin, Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith and freshmen Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong.
Tight end Alize Jones had a promising freshman season, but he missed last season because of academics. He is back and will share time with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe, both named to the Mackey Award Watch List.
While the passing attack could be explosive, the running game will be solid, too.
Josh Adams is the only running back with at least 800 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons. He’s rushed for 1,768 yards and 11 touchdowns and his 6.4 yards per carry ranks fourth in Notre Dame history. He’s also caught 28 passes for 235 yards and two scores.
Joining him is junior Dexter Williams.
Protecting Wimbush and paving the way for Adams and Williams will be an offensive line that returns four starters.
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson are expected to be high picks in next year’s NFL Draft. Senior center Sam Mustipher and senior right guard Alex Bars will be joined by sophomore right tackle Tommy Kraemer.
Fifth-year senior Hunter Biven can play either right or left guard.
Elko replaces the much-maligned Brian VanGorder, who Kelly parted with midseason. Elko had one of the top defenses in the country at Wake Forest and with a deeper talent pool at Notre Dame, the Irish faithful are hopeful he can turn a young unit into a solid one.
Elko likes to apply pressure, but may have his work cut out for him as the defensive line could be the biggest weakness for the Irish. No returning linemen recorded a sack and combined for 5.5 tackles for loss. Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner are the tackles, while Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti and former five-star recruit Daelin Hayes will be the ends. Three freshmen — Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell — could also see playing time.
Linebacker should be a position of strength, led by senior Nyles Morgan. Named to the Bednarik Award Watch list, Morgan, also an Irish captain, started all 12 games last season and led the team with 94 tackles and four sacks. He had at least 10 tackles in five different games.
Joining him are seniors Greer Martini and Te’von Coney. Drue Tranquill is moving from safety to the Rover position.
Because of injuries and lack of depth, at one point last season Notre Dame started four freshmen in the secondary. That could help this season, but the leader — if he can stay healthy — will be senior cornerback Nick Watkins.
Watkins will be joined on the opposite side by injury-plagued junior Shaun Crawford or sophomore Julian Love. Sophomore Jalen Elliott will play strong safety and junior Nick Coleman will be the free safety. Sophomores Devon Studstill and Donte Vaughn will see playing time in the secondary.
The kicking game will also be a strength as junior placekicker Justin Yoon (28 of 34 on field goals) and punter Tyler Newsome (44.5 average) return.
Like always, Notre Dame’s schedule is not filled with a lot of cupcakes. Eleven of 12 teams on the schedule went to a bowl game last season. Georgia and USC will make the trek to remodeled Notre Dame Stadium, while the Irish will take to the road for tough tasks against Michigan State, North Carolina, Miami and Stanford.
Sept. 2: Temple 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 9: Georgia 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16: at Boston College noon
Sept. 23: at Michigan State 8 p.m.
Sept. 30: Miami (Ohio) 5 p.m.
Oct. 7: at North Carolina TBA
Oct. 21: USC 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28: N.C. State 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 4: Wake Forest 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 11: at Miami (Fla.) TBA
Nov. 18: Navy 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 25: at Stanford TBA
Win 8, Lose 4