It’s mid-July and we are just a few weeks away from the start of Notre Dame training camp. With the season just a little under two months away, what better way to spend my time than previewing Notre Dame’s 2019 roster with grades for each position group.
This year we know who the starter will be which is something that isn’t all that common under Brian Kelly. Ian Book is back for his redshirt-Junior season and first full season as the starter. Everyone has high expectations for Book including myself. I believe Book will take another step forward this year after a good last season that unfortunately ended with a very poor performance against Clemson. If Book produces the way I think he will, I believe he will solidify himself as the best QB that Brian Kelly has ever had at Notre Dame. If Notre Dame wants to return to the CFP, Book needs to be a top 10 QB in the country. But at the same time, if Book plays really well, he might declare for the 2020 draft instead of returning for a final season.
Many are skeptical of this position after two years of having top RB’s in Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, but I am a believer in Jafar Armstrong. He will be the lead back for ND as he was in the first four games last year with Williams suspended. Armstrong, a converted WR, looked great in his RB debut against Michigan. He is extremely fast and shifty. The question with Armstrong is his durability, last year he had multiple injuries in the middle of the season that made him a non-factor in November and December. If he can stay healthy, I expect production just slightly below what Adams and Williams provided. Behind him is a veteran backup in Tony Jones. Jones isn’t the most talented back, but he can get the job done. After Jones are three underclassmen who have hardly any experience but have all flashed in practice. Overall it will be a two-man show at RB, but as long as Armstrong is on the field Notre Dame will have a very formidable run game.
There are high expectations for Ian Book’s targets this year, a group that I describe as “extremely talented but slightly unproven”. This group is led by future NFL players in WR Chase Claypool and TE Cole Kmet, and the sure-handed veteran WR Chris Finke. The first two are physical freaks, but neither has been very dominant in their young careers. Claypool was a solid WR2 behind Miles Boykin last year, but now he must be the go-to-guy in his senior season. Kmet, who is the unanimous favorite for breakout player of the year, has never scored a touchdown but has shown flashes of what he can do. With Ze Mack gone, Kmet (a junior) is now the starter and I expect him to be the best TE Notre Dame has had since Tyler Eifert. Finke has been the slot WR for a few years now and was extremely reliable last year. He had one of the best catches in ND history in the opening game against Michigan, and was the only player who didn’t suck in the first half against USC. The rest of this group are young, but talented, guys. Michael Young should line up opposite of Claypool, with Kevin Austin (who is facing possible suspension) as his ultra-talented but very young backup. Brock Wright is the TE2 and is more effective in the run-game than catching passes.
This group returns all the guys who started vs Clemson except for C Sam Mustipher who will be replaced by Jarrett Patterson, a guy that coaches have been very impressed by this spring and summer. The tackles are Liam Eichenberg (projected as a Day 1 or 2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft) and Robert Hainsey (who graded as the best ND lineman last season) at LT and RT respectively. At LG is Aaron Banks (the biggest guy on the line) and at RG is Tommy Kraemer (the only former 5-star on the line). All four of the returning guys were first time full-time starters last season, and with another year of experience under their belt, I expect them to take a major step up. Overall this group should be much better than last year’s inconsistent unit, but won’t quite be as dominant as the 2017 o-line that included Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.
The DE’s are the best position on the team this year. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem both have the potential to be all-Americans and top 2 round NFL picks, and I expect a combined 15+ sacks from them this season. In addition, their backup, Daelin Hayes, would be a starter on the vast majority of programs across the country. The interior DL, however, is a major question mark. Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa look to do their best to replace the first-round pick Jerry Tillery, but neither of them will be anywhere near as good as he was. In general, the pass rush should be great while the run stopping will struggle.
This is a scary unit, and not in a good way. ND has to replace arguably the best LB duo in the country from last year in Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney, and doesn’t have anyone very exciting to replace them with. Asmar Bilal (who started at rover last year) should take over as the Mike. The Buck will either be Jordan Genmark-Heath (the more experienced option) or Jack Lamb (the more talented option). The Rover will likely be Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who many writers have said was the best ND LB all spring. The LB position this year will be like a stain on a carpet that you try to cover up from your parents. How well ND covers up this stain is to be determined.
Three of the four starting spots look very strong (plus the slot CB position), but the CB2 spot is still a question mark. Alohi Gillman and Jalen Elliot return as the two starting safeties and will be one of the best duos in the country (not to mention their 5-star freshman backup Kyle Hamilton). CB1 will be Troy Pride who was outstanding opposite Julian Love last year and could very well be a mid-round pick at next year’s draft. CB2 will likely be Houston Griffith, a former top-100 recruit who struggled in the snaps he got last season. At slot will be Shaun Crawford who is returning from an ACL injury from last summer. He will give the Irish a solid option here after an immense struggle to find a slot CB in his absence last season. Griffith is the x-factor this year. If he is a solid CB2 this unit will be one of the best in the country and a difference maker for the Irish, but if his struggles from last season continue then this unit will be good but not great.
As I recently wrote, ND will be horrible at the kicking specialist spots this season after losing their stars from last year. Expect a lot of attempts to go for it on 4th down this year.
Overall: Right on the border of B+/A-