Note: expected starters courtesy of NDinsider.com
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are counting as an ACC game.
These are words that in my 24 years on this earth, I never thought I would utter. Things change, people change too.
Notre Dame finished last year 11-2, with a win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl(the fact that in normal times ND gets access to ACC bowls is still frustrating, but I digress.) Their only losses came @ UGA, and a complete beating at the hands of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame comes into the year with the ability to win the ACC. First, because they are now allowed to play in the ACC Championship game. Second, according to Bud Elliot at 247 Sports, ND has a “light” schedule as they get to avoid the likes of Miami, Virginia Tech, and UVA, but they do get Clemson before the title game.
Departure wise, ND looks to replace its’ top 4 pass catchers including Cole Kmet and Chase Claypool, a stellar safety in Alohi Gilman, and their most experienced and proven RB in Tony Jones, Jr.
The game will begin and end with Ian Book. Book elected to return for his last year of eligibility. With a rushing attack that right now doesn’t have that much of an identity, outside of an often injured Jafar Armstrong(46 rushes for 122 yards), and the aforementioned loss of receivers, it’s going to be on Book to show the poise he showed throughout 2018 and the end of 2019 to lead the team.
What will help is the fact that ND has arguably the best OL in the country as they return all 5 starters on an absolutely absurd unit from last year. Any team looking to disrupt Book is going to have a tall task ahead of them. Watching Boogie Basham vs Liam Eichenburg will be a draft scout’s dream.
Who Book will be throwing to will be a different story than who is protecting him. Claypool and Kmet were elite targets and parlayed that talent into NFL contracts. Braden Lenzy is the leading returning receiver, as he went for an 11/254/2 stat line last season. Behind him are 3highly touted freshmen, and Northwestern transfer Ben Skowronek. While the talent is there on paper, until they produce, I think it is a completely fair thing to call it a question mark.
The last elephant in the room is the change in offensive philosophy. For the bowl game, ND tapped Tommy Rees as the new Offensive Coordinator. The offense looked electric vs Iowa State, but if bowl game performances were to be taken 100% of the time, Texas would be the #1 team year after year. Without a full spring, and the loss of the weapons from last year, it will be interesting to track how the change goes.
Former Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea has done an incredible job with the Notre Dame defense over the last couple of years. While replacing Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Jamir Jones(the 3 combined for 22.5 TFL last yeas) isn’t the easiest of tasks, Lea has shown the ability to maximize whatever he’s been given.
Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Safety Kyle Hamilton will be the 2 best players on this defense and leaders of the unit. Drew White also returns from a good 2019 campaign and will help lead a good linebacker corps.
Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji will start at the ends, but I’m intrigued if the interior linemen can help generate pressure all year. Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa were regulars last year but without the 3 studs ND lost at DE, you don’t exactly get better.
The best way to attack this defense will be through the air, however. Kyle Hamilton can only do so much out there. Nick McCloud transferred in from NC State, and Shaun Crawford is in his 6th year of eligibility, but for the most part the corners are very inexperienced. One thing I did notice was the level of QBs Notre Dame played last year was... middling. This unit is going to get tested by the likes of Sam Howell, Trevor Lawrence, and a much better Sam Hartman than they saw 2 years ago.
If Wake doesn’t fix the return coverage issues they had last year, they’ll be in for a very long afternoon. Braden Lenzy is a burner, so it’s going to be imperative that Wake doesn’t put themselves into any unnecessary holes.
Returning kickerJonathan Doerer and true freshman punter Jay Bramblett shouldn’t pose any problems for them as they were more than fine last year.
If this had truly taken place in front of a raucous crowd in Charlotte, this would probably be lined a bit closer. Right now Notre Dame has a considerable edge, but it’s not out of the question for Wake to steal one.