Since the Notre Dame basketball team stinks out loud and will not make any noise this March, it is time to ponder on what the football team can improve on for the upcoming season. The Fighting Irish finished the 2018 season with a 12-1 record, ending the season with a disappointing 30-3 loss to the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers. Clemson was undoubtedly the better team. But was Clemson 27 points better than Notre Dame? Not a chance. Notre Dame’s defense was on the same level as Clemson’s. The Irish lost their All-American CB Julian Love for the entire second quarter. Trevor Lawrence and the coaching staff took advantage of that (credit to them) and threw three touchdowns on Julian Love’s replacement. Now, Clemson was without their star Dexter Lawrence, but losing a lineman is a lot different than losing a CB that is on an island. What Notre Dame lacked to keep up with an elite team last year was a high powered offense.
Notre Dame comes into the offseason losing starting offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher. They are big losses on the offensive line, but that is Notre Dame’s best recruited position so it should not be an issue. They also lose TE Alize Mack, but like the lineman it is also a deep position with Cole Kmet and Brock Wright being rising juniors with two years of snaps under their belt. The line is the least of my worries.
What is in question are the skill positions of the offense. Notre Dame will be without RB Dexter Williams and WR Miles Boykin. Both will find spots on NFL rosters in 2019, but who is going to fill in for them? In terms of RB, it has lacked good recruiting for the past few years yet somehow put running backs into the league. I think it has a lot to do with the offensive line they are running behind, but CJ Prosise and Josh Adams have proven to be productive NFL RBs. And now Dexter WIlliams, who is the best of those three RBs, will have a chance to show the NFL world what he is made of come September.
I imagine next year’s rushing attack will be some sort of a running back committee. It should be a combination of Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. getting a majority of the snaps. Then Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, and maybe even freshman Kyren WIlliams filling in the gaps. Honestly, I think this position is completely up for grabs. Jones and Armstrong have seniority and experience, but if they are not effective I could easily see one of the three younger players stepping in and taking over the lead role. I think Armstrong is the best back out of the five right now, as he has the athleticism and vision that I look for in a RB. Jones Jr. isn’t much of an athlete in my eyes, and doesn’t possess the power to make up for his lack of quickness. I don’t think any of these five backs are at the level of Dexter Williams yet, but someone is going to have to step up and be an 80 yd per game rusher at the minimum. Overall, I think their running game is in a good state, and their offensive line could be better this year compared to last.
Wide Receiver is the position that needs to be improved the most. Notre Dame started recruiting WRs that fit the current way that the passing game is used- 5’10-6’2 guys who can catch quick passes along with deep balls and have a lot of yards after the catch. That is how Clemson and Alabama have been playing the last few years, and Notre Dame must convert to that style of play in order to be elite. The RPO system is not best utilized with 6’4 guys like Claypool and Boykin who can’t blow the top off of the opposing defense.
The Irish receiving core will be led by seniors Chris Finke and Chase Claypool. I expect Boykin’s position to be filled by Michael Young, who saw some snaps on the outside last year. Claypool’s position is pretty much locked, but Chris Finke is coming back for a fifth year and expects to be the slot receiver. He is solid, but I think there are better options behind him that can transform Notre Dame into a higher powered offense. Lawrence Keys III should give Finke a run for his money all offseason, and I hope OC Chip Long doesn’t just give the starting role to Finke because he “deserves it”. The best players should always be on the field unless they have off the field issues that require suspension. Michael Young and Lawrence Keys III both ran their 40 yard dashes in the 4.6-4.7 range in high school, so I’d imagine they’re in the 4.5-4.6 range now after a couple years in the conditioning program. The modern passing game isn’t primarily jump balls to tall guys that get tackled as soon as they come down. Notre Dame has to transition into an offense that features WRs that are speed guys emulating Will Fuller, or they will never become a high-powered offense that averages over 30 points a game.
Last but not least, it is time to touch on the most important position on the field- quarterback. Ian Book is probably the best QB of the Brian Kelly era besides Deshone Kizer. Book is a pocket QB who has the athleticism to maneuver the pocket and run when he is forced to. He is an extremely accurate QB, which is very important to have in the RPO system. He is great in Chip Long’s offense. What he must improve first and foremost is his deep ball accuracy, especially if they transition to speed guys on the outside over the next two years. The best ball he threw all year was in the USC game to Chris Finke for their first TD of the game. He floated it perfectly to the front left pilon, a place where only the WR could catch it. More consistent down field passes must be completed by Book in order for them to improve on offense next year.
The other part of his game that he must upgrade is his decision making. The best QBs in the world know when and where to throw the ball, and I think this is something that Book lacks. He often stares down his first option when he drops back to pass and doesn’t scan the entire field for his best possibility. Decision making and down field accuracy improvements will elevate Book’s passing ability, which will in turn take ND’s offense to the next level.
Book most likely will get the nod as starter next year, but there is this guy behind him by the name of Phil Jurkovec that I have been high on since the first time I watched his high school film. He accumulated over 8000 passing yards along with 71 passing TDs and 41 TDs on the ground in only 2.5 years of play. Those numbers are outrageous especially for competing in the toughest league Pennsylvania has to offer. He has a rocket arm and above average athleticism, that was shown on the basketball court where he scored over 1200 points. Jurkovec stands at 6’5 and weighs 225 lbs., the prototypical size for a quarterback. The only criticism that he gets is his weird throwing motion, but if it works for him then who cares. Philip Rivers and Matt Stafford have been in the league for over a decade with odd throwing motions. If he can complete every throw that the offense asks of him, and do it consistently, then there is no reason to change or worry about his throwing motion. Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson have shown that you can sub a young QB in for a veteran and get it done. Those are the top three teams in college football right now. Maybe Phil isn’t ready to play in front of 80,000+ spectators, but his love for Notre Dame growing up and a state championship under his belt tell me otherwise. He is destined to be Notre Dame’s QB of the future and should be working his ass off to show the coaches that his ceiling is higher than Book’s.
Modern sports are played with a boom-or-bust mentality. QBs take more deep shots than they used to in hopes to score a touchdown rather than handing the ball off for three yards and a cloud of dust. Baseball has more strikeouts than ever, with most hitters going up to the plate with a homerun approach. Basketball is won by shooting 40+ 3 pointers and the winner of the game is usually who can convert on more of them. This is the approach Notre Dame must take to their offense for the 2019 season and beyond. Scoring 45 points is what it takes to be an elite team in college football. If Notre Dame wants to not only get into the CFP but win the national championship, they must transform their offense into one that puts points on the board in a majority of their possessions.