Any Wake Forest fan who watched last year’s football game against ND saw a great offensive performance by John Wolford and co. and a defensive struggle against a powerful Notre Dame rushing attack that featured two top 10 NFL Draft linemen. There is reason to believe this year’s Notre Dame team will pose a different challenge. Here are some of the differences:
Notre Dame lost Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and Josh Adams who entered the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite losing two All-American caliber lineman, the Fighting Irish still brings enough talent along their O-Line to have once again a strong group under new O-Line Coach Jeff Quinn. They might not be as good as last year’s no. 1 O-Line in the country, but this is far from a weak group. Keep an eye on Alex Bars (Guard) and Sam Mustipher (Center) to be the anchors of this group moving forward. Both were named to the Outland Trophy preseason watch list, awarded to the best lineman in the country.
The RB position, on the other hand, faces a lot of question marks heading into the 2018 season after the departure of Adams. After Coach Brian Kelly dismissed Deon McIntosh and C.J Holmes from the program, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. are the only backs with meaningful College Football experience on their roster.
On top of that, there are rumors that Williams might also be facing a 4-game suspension due to breaking team rules. Our friends at One Foot Down (SBNation’s site covering the Fighting Irish) have mentioned it a couple times, here’s the latest. If anything, it’s safe to say that ND will not have the same group that averaged 269 yards per game on the ground and pounded the Deacs defense for 380 yards last time they met.
However, what Notre Dame might lack in experience at the RB position it more than makes up for in the passing game. Returning wideouts Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are two big, athletic targets that should keep Wake’s hands full all game. It should be fun to see what Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson can do to slow them down.
Wake fans might remember Claypool for his monster game against the Deacs last season. He racked up 180 yards and a TD on 9 receptions for ND. Boykin is most well-known for his amazing one-handed grab during the Citrus Bowl game to beat LSU, as seen below (via @sportswm).
Needless to say, those two are expected to be major offensive contributors this season. At the TE spot, Alizé Mack is another athletic receiver with the ability to go up and make contested catches. Mack has been recently listed on the John Mackey Award preseason watch list, awarded to the best TE in the country.
As for their starting QB, Brandon Winbush is the clear favorite to be the Irish starter. Winbush is dangerous both rushing and throwing the ball deep. Winbush’s biggest problem might be his lack of accuracy in some of his short and medium throws (sounds familiar?). Against Wake, he threw for 280 yards and rushed for 110, with 3 total touchdowns.
Winbush is fast and slippery. He can sit in the pocket and wait for one of his big-bodied receivers to get a one-on-one situation, or he can break out of the pocket as soon as things collapse and get huge gains with his legs. It takes an extremely disciplined defense to stop Winbush’s game.
Notre Dame is returning most of its defensive core to a unit that should be once again pretty solid. One guy to keep an eye on is Cornerback Julian Love. He is very instinctive, locates the ball well, and is physical contesting the catch. Love had 3 interceptions last season, one of them against John Wolford, and returned 2 for TDs. He also broke up 20 passes, most in the FBS. He’s also on the Jim Thorpe preseason watch list, awarded to best Defensive Back.
Starting opposite Love, Shaun Crawford shouldn’t be overlooked either. Crawford has good understanding of the game and is looking to have his best performance yet after injuries bothered him through his college career. He had 2 Int’s this past season. This duo will be a tough test early in the season for whoever is at QB for the Deacs.
Another strength is their front seven. Senior big man Jerry Tillery can be a disruptive force through the middle in one-on-one situation. Tillery was also named to the Outland Trophy watch list.
The Linebacker crew is led by seniors Te’von Coney (Middle) and Jerry Tillery (Weakside). Coney led the team with 116 total tackles last season while Tillery came in third with 85. They also combined for a total of 23 TFL’s. They play the run well and are comfortable dropping in coverage.
However, one thing I’ve noticed watching Notre Dame last season is that they often struggled against QB runs. More specifically the QB Draw. You can see in the example below against Miami (via @PeteSampson_).
The quarterback draw hurt Notre Dame on Saturday night. Taxed Irish linebackers. pic.twitter.com/d7WwSTvYuD— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) November 16, 2017
You might also recall Wolford’s TD run against them. (via @jamieuyeyama)
The Breakdown: #NotreDame defense vs Wake Forest https://t.co/cK2EsrkXjH Too many bad reads and missed assignments. Coney focuses on the back and not the pulling tackle. Big hole on the QB draw pic.twitter.com/vspz29CBHF— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) November 8, 2017
As mentioned before, this ND team will most likely take a step back in terms of running back production, especially if Williams’ suspension holds true. I would expect them to rely more on the passing game this season given their options on the outside and lack of experience on the backfield. However, Winbush’s ability to run shouldn’t be overlooked. If Wake hopes to win this game they have to stay home and keep him in the pocket. It will also be interesting to see how the Deacs’ Front Seven fairs against ND’s O-Line. Both sides lost some important contributors from last season, but ND returns the most talent.
On defense, Notre Dame has a strong D-Line and extremely good corners. Regardless of who’s the starting QB, expect the Deacs to run the ball a lot and rely heavily on the Beef Boys. Being able to run the ball well will go a long way in opening up the passing game with more Play-Action to keep the defense guessing.
This will also be the first season of Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea who assumed the job after Mike Elko left for Texas A&M. It will be interesting to see how he handles this defense.
Altogether, Notre Dame will be a tough challenge and the Demon Deacons should still be underdogs at home. The Irish are ranked at 7th place in Projected S&P+ for the upcoming season.
Overall, they are a very solid team with few weaknesses. Wake has a chance to win if they keep Winbush inside the pocket on defense and run the ball well on offense. This week 4 matchup has the potential to be the signature win that will finally put Wake Forest on the national radar.
Comment below with your thoughts on the Notre Dame game. Is there any other player worth mentioning? How do you think the Deacs will fare?