The Irish look to bounce back from a disappointing 2016, but have a long hill to climb.
We’re still a long way off from the start of college football season, but it’s never too early to know where teams stand heading into the new year. At SQ, our college football writers will be previewing our top-25. Virginia Tech was the first team up, now we take a closer look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish coming in at No. 24.
Team Name: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2016 Record and Rank: 4-8 (NR)
Coach: Brian Kelly (8 years, 59-31)
Key Departures: QB Deshone Kizer, QB Malik Zaire, DL Jarron Jones, CB Cole Luke, LB James Onwualu
Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense
Notre Dame’s offense in 2016 was horrid. The Irish finished 76th in the country in only picking up 5,011 total yards (418 per game), and 53rd in points per game at 30.9. The only star from last year’s team was quarterback DeShone Kizer, who left early for the NFL, much to the dismay of coach Brian Kelly. Early in the season Kizer split snaps with Malik Zaire, but he’s gone as well, heading to Florida as a graduate transfer. That leaves the Irish to depend on a quarterback who didn’t take a single snap last season.
Early reports have Brandon Wimbush as the early favorite to start the 2017 season. The former four-star recruit out of Jersey City, Wimbush has only thrown five total passes and that was all in 2015, so the early part of the season will be telling to see how he can take the pressure of running Kelly’s offense. Lucky for him, his supporting cast has plenty of experience.
Lining up behind Wimbush will be junior running back Josh Adams, who lead the team in rushing with 933 yards and five touchdowns. Dexter Williams will push Adams for the starting role, but after back-to-back years of over 800 yards rushing and 6.4 yards per attempt, Adams should be the Irish bellcow.
The Irish’s leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also returns and was a welcome surprise in 2016. St. Brown ended the year with 961 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The No. 2 receiver for Wimbush will most likely be given to Kevin Stephenson, who finished third on the team in yards (462), first yards per catch (18.5), and second in touchdowns (5).
Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense
The Irish defense was in disarray before the season even started. Six Notre Dame players were arrested in two separate incidents, with four of those players on defense. Then senior safety Max Redfield was eventually dismissed from the team and cornerback Devin Butler received an indefinite suspension. Those two left an already inexperienced defense to start two new players, and the results weren’t pretty. The Irish finished the season giving up 4,546 total yards (40th nationally). Not only did they give up tons of yards, they gave up points in bunches, giving up 27.8 per game (63rd nationally)
In 2017, the Irish defense should be a much different group. After starting 1-4 in 2016 defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired, and now in comes ex-Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Notre Dame lost some key guys, like corner Cole Luke and linebacker James Onwualu, but have experienced guys coming back as well. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill look to lead a rebuilding defense.
Notre Dame finished outside the top-100 in both turnovers (104th, with 14) and sacks (114th, with 14). This is the biggest area Kelly and Elko will focus on and can only really improve on those lackluster numbers. If the defense can step up and take pressure off Wimbush and the offense, watch out for the Irish to surprise a lot of people.
Three Key Games
1. Sept 9th vs Georgia- The new look Irish start the season off with Temple which should be a nice starting point to see exactly what this team will look like, but in week two we see what kind of potential they have. This will mark only the second time in history that the Bulldogs and Irish, the first being back in 1981 when Georgia took home the 17-10 victory. Georgia features an up-and-coming sophomore quarterback in Jacob Eason and a dynamic backfield duo of Sony Michell and Nick Chubb. Couple that offense with a Kirby Smart defense and the Irish have a major test early in the season.
2. Oct. 21st vs. USC- When USC and Notre Dame play, it’s always a primetime event no matter how much the two may struggle. The Irish lead the all-time series 44-36-5 but got manhandled in 2016, losing 45-27. Current Heisman favorite quarterback Sam Darnold might be the best player Notre Dame faces all year and an inexperienced secondary will have their hands full keeping him in check. This game could go a long way in seeing if Notre Dame can make a bowl game, or if USC is championship ready.
3. Nov. 25th at Stanford- Like Notre Dame-USC, Notre Dame verse Stanford is a must-see event. In 2016, Notre Dame had a great shot at beating the Cardinal, but squandered a 10-0 halftime lead, eventually falling 17-10. Stanford has their own questions to answer, like who is going to replace Christian McCaffrey’s production, but is still a formidable team. This could be a must-win game for the Irish to get into a bowl game, and might be a must-win for Kelly to save his job.
To say Notre Dame was a disappointment last year is an understatement. They started off the season ranked 10th in the AP Poll and finished a miserable 4-8 marking Kelly’s only losing season in South Bend. Like always, expectations are high for the Irish, but I am very surprised to see them ranked in our top-25. The only major change is at the quarterback position and it’s too early to tell if the change is for the better. The offense looks to be the most sound group, outside of the QB spot, with experienced linemen, receivers, and running backs.
The defense is a little concerning but I believe Elko will change the culture of the players and create a spark that’s long overdue. Overall I think the Irish have an average season as they struggle to find their identity on both sides of the ball. A 7-5 record wouldn’t surprise me, but if this team wants to taken seriously, they will have to scratch and claw out a victory against the likes of Georgia, Michigan State, USC, Miami, or Stanford, but I think those teams have way too much talent for this Notre Dame squad.
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