For the first time since December 28th, 2019, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will take the field on Saturday, September 12th when they welcome the Duke Blue Devils to Notre Dame Stadium.
This season has had a wrench thrown into it with COVID-19 forcing conferences to a conference only schedule, to reduce traveling. As a result, Notre Dame has joined as a full member of the ACC, something only for this season.
The Irish are coming off a 11-2 season, including a Camping World Bowl win over Iowa State. If the Fighting Irish finish with double digit wins this season, it would be the 5th double digit win season in 6 seasons, something that has only happened once before in program history. The last time that was done, was when Lou Holtz led the Irish on the streak from 1988-1993. This could be helped by the fact that Notre Dame is expected to be Vegas favorites in all of their games, except for the Clemson game. That rings true, in Week One, when, according to the William Hill Sportsbook, Notre Dame is 20 point favorites over the Duke Blue Devils.
Notre Dame is helped by key returners this year including senior QB Ian Book who holds a 20-3 lifetime record for the Golden Domers and is Sporting News’ 26th ranked player in the country. They also benefit from the 18thranked class in the country, including the number one all purpose back in the country according to 24/7, Chris Tyree. This season, Book will be backed up by redshirt freshman Brendan Clark and the second ranked player in the state of Connecticut, Drew Pyne. Clark played in two games last year, completing one pass, a 27 yard touchdown to Braeden Lenzy.
Notre Dame has to retool their weapons after the departure of TE Cole Kmet, WR Chase Claypool, RB Tony Jones Jr, and WR Chris Finke, to the draft. Notre Dame also lost backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec, after he transferred to Boston College. Coach Brian Kelly will have to do all of that with a new offensive coordinator after Chip Long left to join the Tennessee Volunteers. As a result, former Notre Dame starting Quarterback and QB coach Tommy Rees has taken the offensive reins.
Notre Dame is going to have a two back set this season with junior Jafar Armstrong and sophomore C’Bo Flemister sharing the duties. Last season, Armstrong had 122 yards and 1 touchdown, a step down from his sophomore season where he had 72 carries for 383 yards and 7 touchdowns. C’Bo Flemister stepped up in the second half of last season after Armstrong went down, compiling 48 carriers for 162 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Notre Dame offense will run through a veteran offensive line including 4 upper classmen and what is expected to be a freshman in Tosh Baker.
Head Coach Brian Kelly returns his defensive coordinator, Clark Lea this year to a defense that was 18th in the nation for points per game and yards per game a year ago. The team however did lose, defensive leaders, Jamir Jones, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem to the NFL Draft. Notre Dame is hoping they are replaced by sophomore Jacob Lace, a healthy Daelin Hayes, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
The defensive backs for Notre Dame have to continue to step up this season as they did last season, in a tough ACC, where they will have to face Trevor Lawrence and the vaunted Clemson offense. That will be up to sophomore Kyle Hamilton, Houston Griffith and Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor. Brian Kelly’s staff has to be hoping that Isaiah Pryor returns to his 2018 form when he had 31 tackles, 1 interception and 5 pass deflections. After the transfer, Pryor helps Coach Kelly out tremendously with two years left of eligibility including this season.
On the special teams front, Notre Dame looks to have sophomore punter Jay Bramblett carry over his stellar freshman year, when he had 18 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line and he averaged 39.4 yards per punt. The Golden Domer’s kicker this season will be senior Johnathan Doerer, who went 57 for 57 on PATs and 17 for 20 on field goals last season.
Stop teams in the red zone: Last season, Notre Dame allowed scores in the red zone 75% of the time and 53% of those were touchdowns. In the 44-14 loss in the Big House last season, Notre Dame allowed Michigan into the red zone 5 times and gave up 4 touchdowns. Needless to say they need to force more field goals this season.
Rush for 100+ yards: The veteran running back room, will be led by C’Bo Flemister and Jafar Armstrong. Those two have to get to triple digit yards every game. The Fighting Irish are 1-8 since rushing for 80 yards in a win over Pitt, when rushing for less than 100 yards. On the flip side of that coin, Notre Dame is on a 23 game winning streak when rushing for 100+ yards.
Heisman Hopeful: Notre Dame’s best chance to win a Heisman this season is Quarterback Ian Book. William Hill Sportsbook lists Book at 30-1 odds to win the Heisman. Book would be Notre Dame’s first Heisman winner since Tim Brown won it in 1987. Last season, Book compiled 3,034 passing yards, 546 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns, a stat line he needs to slight improve going up against quarterbacks like Trevor Lawrence from Clemson and Spencer Rattler from Oklahoma in the Heisman race.
Breakout Players: Braeden Lenzy, WR, JR: Last year Lenzy started to break out before injuries slowed him down. However, he finished with 11 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 23.1 yards after the catch.
Kyle Hamilton, CB, SO: Last year he had 27 tackles, four picks, and six pass deflections, allowing only 7 catches all of last season. He did that as a backup to Alohi Gillman, playing as a nickel safety, not his primary role.
Kevin Austin, WR, JR: In his freshman campaign he caught 5 passes for 90 yards, as the 86th ranked recruit in the country. He missed all of last season, after being suspended for undisclosed reasons. This season, Austin who has been hyped up to be a star by Pittsburgh Steelers, former Notre Dame star WR Chase Claypool. However, the breakout season will have to wait at least a few weeks after Austin suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot. As a result, he had surgery back on August 3rd. Notre Dame has not announced a return besides saying, “Austin is expected to return to action this fall”.
Record Prediction: 10-1, 2nd in the ACC.
Image Source: AP Images