Perhaps nowhere more than the Notre Dame football offices was the changing of the calendar to 2017 more anticipated. The program, desperately in need of a fresh start after the 4-8 debacle of 2016, enters 2017 with a renewed focus on getting back to the basics, led by a coaching staff with many new faces.
Notre Dame’s 2016 season was a colossal disappointment. The Irish, a consensus top 10 team in preseason polling, failed to live up to lofty expectations. Against one of the easiest schedules ND has played in years, Notre Dame faltered to a 4-8 record, blowing leads in 7 of the 8 losses and failing to make a bowl game for the first time in the Brian Kelly era. Though Kelly ended up keeping his job (against the wishes of the Board of Trustrees, according to sources), defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder became the first Notre Dame coach in the program’s storied history to be fired during the season after his defense surrendered 50 points in a loss to Texas, 36 points in a loss to Michigan State, and 38 points in a loss to Duke. Following the season, co-offensive coordinators Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock left to take other jobs, while Kelly fired special teams and tight ends coach Scott Booker and demoted strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo. The losing season and coaching exodus also contributed to the loss of two high profile recruits, Pennsylvania defensive tackle Donovan Jeter and Indiana linebacker Pete Werner, and the staff will need to battle to keep the remaining players in the class together. Finally, DeShone Kizer, the team’s quarterback and best all-around player announced that he would enter the NFL Draft, while backup QB Malik Zaire decided to transfer and play his fifth year elsewhere.
However, despite the negative momentum of 2016 and the fact Kelly barely kept his job and enters 2017 on the hottest of seats, his coaching hires have injected optimism back into the program and indicate that he plans to return to the blueprint which made him one of the most sought after coaches in the country when hired by Notre Dame after leading Cincinnati to back-to-back Orange Bowls. It appears Kelly will return to calling plays (which he did with great success at previous stops), with new offensive coordinator Chip Long helping with quarterbacks and tight ends. New special teams coordinator Brian Polian looks to improve a unit that has struggled throughout the Kelly era, but whose miscues swung momentum away from the Irish in the Michigan State, Duke, Syracuse, Miami, and USC games. New strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis brings over a decade of experience working under Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen, and through a partnership with David Ballou, formerly the Physical Conditioning Coach for IMG Academy in Florida, (which also bolsters Notre Dame’s recruiting pipeline there), will provide a renewed focus on increasing the physical power of the Irish players through a new strength and nutrition program.
The biggest hire of the offseason, though, is new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who Kelly hired away from Wake Forest. At stops at Wake Forest and Bowling Green, Elko coached strong, fundamentally sound, aggressive defenses who achieved great success despite little recruiting accolades. In fact, Elko’s 2015 Wake Forest defense was the only opponent to hold the ND offense under 400 total yards during the season, albeit in a 28-7 loss. Elko, despite being only 39, has a history of fitting his scheme to the players he has, which stands in contrast to Van Gorder’s hesitancy to adjust his scheme to his players and opponent. Though Notre Dame has young talent on defense, especially at linebacker and in the secondary, Elko’s biggest challenge will be finding a consistent pass rush given the lack of a standout defensive end. The Irish were among the worst in the country in sacks in 2016, and did not even record a sack until the Syracuse game.
This brings us to our eight biggest questions facing Notre Dame in 2017. If Notre Dame is able to answer these questions, they are primed for a bounce back season given the talent on the roster. However, given the 2017 schedule, Notre Dame could struggle again if they have inconsistency on defense or at the quarterback position.
- With DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire leaving the program, can Brandon Wimbush take the next step?
Though the departure of Kizer and Zaire means that two talented players left the program, a new face at quarterback helps contribute to the sense that 2017 is a fresh start for the Irish. Brandon Wimbush, who came to Notre Dame as a decorated 4 star recruit from St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, has immense potential. In high school, he led his school to a state championship, and displayed flashes of brilliance in limited playing time as a freshman in 2015. Kelly wisely asked Wimbush to redshirt last season, preserving a year of eligibility and giving him another year to learn the system. Wimbush takes the reins possessing a rocket arm and the ability to make plays with his feet, but also has three other “intangible” traits that give him a chance to be successful.
First, though he lacks game experience, this season will be Wimbush’s third in Kelly’s system, meaning he has an intimate understanding of the offense. Second, Wimbush enters spring camp as the unquestioned starter, allowing him to get the majority of first team reps and gel with the offense, while also letting the locker room rally behind him as the leader. Many people close to the program feel that Kelly’s hesitancy to hand the quarterback job to DeShone Kizer last season split the locker room. Finally, though Wimbush is quiet by nature, he does have leadership qualities—it speaks volumes that in an era where many top quarterback prospects transfer rather than waiting their turn or having to compete for a job, Wimbush was willing to take a redshirt year last year despite seeing playing time as a freshman, and with no guarantee that Kizer would turn pro after the 2016 season. He wants to be at Notre Dame, and the team will rally behind that.
Ultimately, Wimbush’s success, especially early in the season, will depend on how Kelly utilizes him. Kelly has been at his best when an inexperienced quarterback forces him to simplify his play calling and rely on the running game, as evidenced in 2009 at Cincinnati with Zach Collaros, who took over the QB job after Tony Pike’s injury, and in 2012 at Notre Dame when redshirt freshman Everett Golson led ND to the national title game on the back of a strong running game and dominant defense. Kelly must avoid putting too much on Wimbush’s shoulders early in the season by keeping reads simple, utilizing the screen game, allowing him to get in the flow of a game with the read option, and most importantly, using the big offensive line to assert the Irish rushing attack.
- Will an offensive line plagued by inconsistency in 2016 find cohesion?
During Kelly’s tenure, Notre Dame has consistently recruited one of the top offensive line classes, though there has just been a single season (2012) when the Irish averaged over 200 yards rushing per game. It is no coincidence that Notre Dame played for the title that season, because a Notre Dame team has never won a national title without averaging over 200 yards rushing per game. With a deep stable of running backs, led by juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, and a highly rated offensive line, there is no reason why the Irish should not surpass 200 yards rushing per game in 2017.
Notre Dame received a big boost this week when senior Mike McGlinchey (a 3rd team All-American in 2016) announced that he would return for his 5th year. He is expected to be joined by rising senior and fellow All-American candidate Quenton Nelson, giving the Irish two anchors on the left side of the line. Sam Mustipher returns at center, though he will be pushed byTristen Hoge. The spots on the right side will be decided by competition during the spring and summer, with returning veterans Alex Bars and Colin McGovern expected to be challenged by Tommy Kraemer, Parker Bordreaux, and possibly Hoge, should he not start at center.
If Kelly puts more emphasis on developing a smashmouth downhill running game in 2017, it will be to the offensive line’s benefit, because it will allow them to play aggressively. Despite its collective talent, Notre Dame’s offensive line played too passively in 2016 because they spent the majority of the time either pass blocking or zone blocking for slow-developing lateral running plays.
- Can tight end position return to a position of strength in 2017?
Notre Dame developed a reputation under Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly as Tight End U, with John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, and Ben Koyack all going on to NFL careers. However, production from the tight end position dropped significantly in 2015 (due in part to a strong receiving corps) and continued its decrease in 2016. Notre Dame tight ends caught only 12 passes in 2016, with Durham Smythe leading the way with 9 catches (though 4 went for touchdowns). Broadcasters regularly commented on the apparent hesitancy of Kizer to throw to the tight end, as replays in multiple games showed him looking off an open tight end in favor of a more difficult throw, including on a crucial third down against Navy the Irish did not convert. Any return to success for Notre Dame in 2017 depends on increasing production at the tight end position, especially given the inexperience at wide receiver after Equanimeous St. Brown due to the retirement of Torii Hunter, Jr.
The good news is that Notre Dame has the players to increase production at tight end. Aliz’e Jones, the highest rated prep tight end in 2015 and a consensus 5 star recruit, returns from a year-long academic suspension, and will give the Irish a threat to stretch the field from the slot they currently do not have. Durham Smythe returns for a 5th year and will continue to see significant action as an attached blocker, and Nic Weishar offers promise as a receiver, though he has yet to deliver on that while at Notre Dame. Additionally, the Irish have the top incoming tight end class in the country, with 5 star Brock Wright and 4 star Cole Kmet. Both could contribute as freshman, with Wright offering the size, strength, and athleticism to immediately make a difference as both a blocker and receiver.
Again, it comes down to play calling and utilization, and I expect Kelly to quickly give Aliz’e Jones a prominent role in the offense with sets designed to get him the ball, especially in the red zone. The athleticism at tight end also allows Notre Dame to go to two and three tight end sets while still forcing the defense to respect the pass and play safeties deep—allowing the Irish to run the ball from an advantageous position when they so choose.
- Can the defense generate a pass rush?
One of the biggest signs of Notre Dame’s defensive struggles is the fact that the Irish did not muster a single sack until week 4, and for the season Nyles Morgan, a linebacker, led the team in sacks with 4. After Van Gorder’s ouster and the simplification of the defense by Kelly and interim coordinator Greg Hudson, the Irish defensive line did become more disruptive, but the defense was still unable to come up with crucial stops against Stanford, Virginia Tech, Navy, and USC.
Notre Dame’s biggest problem is that it lacks a dominant pass rusher, a hole that recruiting has been unable to fill since the departure of Stephon Tuitt. Notre Dame has bodies and depth along the defensive line, but it will be up to Elko to find a way to generate pressure through scheme, as no player can consistently win one-on-one matchups, especially now that Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell have graduated.
In order for the Irish to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback (and also get more tackles for loss), a number of things need to fall into place.
- Young edge players who have looked good in spurts, such as Daelin Hayes, Jay Hayes, and Julian Okwara need to take the next step in their development. The new strength and nutrition program that Balis and Ballou bring should help with this, as Hayes and Okwara were not physically ready for major college football last year.
- The defensive tackle tandem of Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery needs to stay healthy, because there is little experience behind them. Cage missed a number of games last season with a concussion.
- Elko should use a variety of situational blitz packages with linebackers to generate pressure, especially on third down, where the Irish were atrocious last season, most notably in losses to Virginia Tech, Navy, and USC. Using situational blitz packages allows young athletic linebackers such as Asmir Bilal and Jamir Jones to get on the field.
- The secondary needs to mature and cause more coverage sacks. There is little that the defensive line can do when the QB releases the ball in less than two seconds, which is exactly how Texas, Miami (in the second half), and Virginia Tech torched the Irish defense.
- Can a young secondary handle the pressure of expectations?
Notre Dame began the season with Cole Luke and Nick Coleman starting at corner, Shaun Crawford at nickel, and Avery Sebastian and Drue Tranquill at safety. By end of the year, Luke had shifted to nickel, Crawford was lost for the season with a torn ACL, and Sebastian and Coleman had been benched. Once Van Gorder was fired, Kelly and Hudson turned to a group of freshman in the secondary, a strategy that didn’t always deliver pretty defensive stats, but allowed the freshman to gain valuable experience while displaying flashes of talent.
Elko’s challenge will be getting those players to take the next step as sophomores—they need to get stronger while gaining experience in the scheme and the confidence to trust their ability. For the Notre Dame defense to improve, they must be strong in the secondary, especially with a suspect pass rush. Julian Love, Troy Pride, and Donte Vaughn need to be all stars in the weight room and must learn Elko’s scheme quickly, allowing them to play fast and confidently. The talent and hunger are there—it just needs to be refined. Furthermore, if Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford are able to successfully return from their injuries, the Irish have the makings of a very good group of corners.
Depth at safety remains a concern, though it was very encouraging to see Drue Tranquill not only play a full season, but make a significant impact. Devin Studstill should be better with another offseason, and Spencer Perry and Isaiah Robertson look like impact players. Nicco Fertitta does not have the size, strength, or speed to be an every down safety, but when he is in, he flies to the ball and makes plays—he will see playing time in 2017.
- Will special teams hurt or help the Irish in 2017?
Brian Polian will assume the task of trying to improve the Notre Dame special teams unit, one which hurt the Irish much more than it helped them in 2016. Special teams miscues directly contributed to four Notre Dame losses. Against Michigan State with the Irish up 7-0, an MSU punt hit a member of the ND punt team and was recovered for a fumble. MSU would go on to score 36 unanswered points (ND also had a CJ Sanders kickoff return for a touchdown called back for holding in the game). Against Duke, with the Irish up 14-0, a kickoff return for a touchdown swung the momentum in Duke’s favor. Against NC State while playing in Hurricane Matthew, the only touchdown of the game came on NC State returning a blocked punt. Finally, it’s impossible to forget USC’s Adoree Jackson returning both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the season finale. Notre Dame managed to overcome a fumbled punt and conceded onside kick against Miami and a long punt return against Syracuse and still win, though both plays resulted in significant momentum swings in the opponents’ favor.
Having a coach dedicated solely to special teams should improve the Irish units, as Scott Booker was not up to the task of coaching both special teams and tight ends. The kicking game should again be solid, as Justin Yoon returns for his junior season. Tyler Newsome is also back at punter, and Polian should work with him on consistency. Newsome has a big leg, evidenced by his season-long 71 yard punt and 43.5 yard average, but his inconsistency led either to situations where he failed to punt the ball out of bounds and gave the returner a chance (such as against USC), or where he missed an opportunity to flip field position and put the defense on its heels. The ever-explosive CJ Sanders returns at kick returner, along with Chris Finke at punt returner, where he was solid after stepping in for the struggling Sanders.
Throughout Kelly’s tenure, he (like many coaches to be fair) has used the coverage teams as an opportunity to get younger players and even some walk-ons exposure to game situations. However, given how ineffective the ND coverage teams were last season, Polian and Kelly should consider modeling the composition of their coverage units after Jim Tressel’s coverage units during his successful run at Ohio State. Tressel placed such an emphasis on special teams and field position that his strategy came to bear his name, “Tressel Ball.” He stocked his coverage teams with players from his defensive two deep, including many starters, and Notre Dame should do the same. Nyles Morgan was a force on special teams his first two seasons in South Bend—Polian and Kelly should utilize players like him, Bilal, Studstill, and Tranquill on the coverage teams to get their best athletes on the field.
- Which freshman can step in and contribute immediately?
It should be Notre Dame’s goal to preserve eligibility for as many of the 17 current recruits in the class as possible. This gives these recruits the opportunity to acclimate to the academic rigors of student life at Notre Dame, develop strength in the weight room, and learn the offensive or defensive system. However, there are a few freshman who could contribute right away due to a combination of talent and need at a particular position.
As discussed above, Brock Wright is a candidate for significant playing time at tight end as a freshman, due to his ability as both a blocker and a receiver. Darnell Ewell could also challenge for playing time at defensive tackle, especially if there is an injury to Cage or Tillery. Additionally, Isaiah Robertson, recruited as an athlete but will play safety at ND, should see the field due to depth concerns at the safety position.
It should be a point of emphasis on the coaching staff to be judicious with which freshman see the field this year, especially if the class remains small. Though it is a solid, top 15-type class, there is no superstar, and just about every recruit could use a year to continue to develop. Last year, the staff made some questionable decisions on playing time for freshmen, burning a year of eligibility for Daelin Hayes, Jamir Jones, and Jalen Elliott—three talented players who showed flashes of talent at times but didn’t make a consistent impact because they were not physically ready to compete at the college level.
- Will Brian Kelly survive the 2017 season?
You heard it here first—Brian Kelly will not be fired after the 2017 season, though it is within the realm of possibility that he parlays a successful 2017 into an NFL head coaching job. The hires that Kelly has made this offseason demonstrate that at least on paper, he is getting back to what gave him so much success at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati, and is willing to go outside of his circle of coaches for fresh faces and new ideas. A program in desperate need of a breath of fresh air has one for now, though at first glance, the Irish face a much tougher schedule this season than in 2016.
In the end, it all comes down to Kelly. The talent is there and he has assembled a young, hungry coaching staff. He didn’t win two Division II national championships by accident. He didn’t take Cincinnati to back-to-back Orange Bowls by accident. He didn’t take Notre Dame to the title game in 2012 by accident. He is a good coach. Kelly has pushed the right buttons in the offseason to this point—he needs to trust himself on the sidelines again by going back to what worked to get him to Notre Dame in the first place. If the offseason is an indication, he will do just that.
The Common Room’s Way-too-Early Prediction for Notre Dame in 2017:
10-2 and a berth in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Look for a future post breaking down the 2017 schedule.