There are 13 days till Notre Dame kicks off their season in Austin, Texas against the Longhorns. We are a little over one-third of the way through fall practice and, as such, it is time to make some predictions. This year I’ll be setting some over/under numbers for each position group, the results of which will tell a tale of how I expect this season to go. I’ll also be making a final win total prediction at the end.
Starts By A Player Who Doesn’t Take The Field First Against Texas: 2.5
Brian Kelly announced last week that both quarterbacks would see time in the opener in Austin. There are about 100 different over/unders that could be set for this position, but the biggest question is who is going to be taking the field first every week. Is this really going to be a co-starter situation? Could they rotate starts? Steve Spurrier in 1997 was so bold as to rotate his quarterbacks on every play. I don’t see Brian Kelly doing that, but I also didn’t see him trying to juggle two starters for a whole season either.
But, in Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame and in his final season at Cincinnati, he saw his first team QB start every game exactly one time (Tommy Rees in 2013). And given the fact both quarterbacks can run, and Kelly knows he has two of them (even three with Brandon Wimbush) who can win games with a similar style, he’s bound to use whoever is at quarterback as recklessly as he wishes.
Total Rushing Yards By Any Single Rusher: 999.5
The basic question is will Notre Dame have a 1,000 yard rusher in 2016? Given the stable of backs the Irish boast heading into this season, and the strength of the offensive line, it’s easy to lean toward yes. Especially when you consider CJ Prosise ran for over 1,000 yards last season while missing three full games. His back up, Josh Adams, also approached the 1,000 yard plateau, finishing with 838 yards.
However, there are some things to consider. First, Adams and Prosise never really shared carries throughout the year. When Prosise started and finished a game, the only time Adams reached double digit carries was against UMass; his next closest was eight against Navy. Notre Dame wasn’t really a running back by committee last season. Whoever was healthy was the one who was the bell cow. Second, should one of Folston and Adams go down, Dexter Williams appears more than ready to fill in and be the complimentary back to either Folston or Adams.* He can run inside to offset Adams’ long speed or he can provide more burst than Folston as a change of pace. There is likely to be a dearth of carries for any one player to reach the 1,000 yard mark.
*Note: The recent arrest of running back Dexter Williams on marijuana possession and illegal firearm possession cloud both his short term and long term future with the team and the University. The extent of the charges and his punishment are both unknown. The basis of my prediction is under the assumption that he will be available to the team for the majority of the year.
Total Receptions Plus Touchdowns For Torii Hunter Jr.: 65.5/9.5
How good is Torii Hunter Jr. going to be? Is he going to have a season similar to the TJ Jones 2013 output of 70 catches, 1,110 yards and 11 scores? Or will it be closer to the 49-745-7 DaVaris Daniels turned in that same season? It’s an important distinction because it is unlikely any Notre Dame player other than Hunter Jr. will approach the numbers that Daniels put up in 2013; there is too much unproven youth to put that expectation on any one guy. To be clear, as a number two option, Daniels output is completely adequate. But, for the #1 receiver in this offense? That is likely to not be good enough for this offense to reach its full potential.
The only time Notre Dame succeeded with a #1 receiver with numbers as low as Daniels was in 2012 when Tyler Eifert led the team with 50 receptions and 685 yards. It should also be noted the 2012 defense held teams to under 13 points a game. That is not a model that is likely to work for Notre Dame in 2016. The good news is all reports indicate Hunter Jr. is playing the best ball of his life and maybe more importantly CJ Sanders is causing problems for everyone out of the slot. If Hunter Jr. gets 1 on 1 coverage on a regular basis I like his chances to deliver himself and the offensive a stellar season.
Total Touchdowns From The Tight End Position: 3.5
An interesting observation: For a school known as Tight End U, their tight ends don’t catch a ton of touchdowns, at least under Brian Kelly. The most combined scores for the position came in 2013, when Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack combined for eight. The most any single tight end has scored under Kelly is tied at five between Eifert in 2011 and Niklas in 2013. Even if starter Alize Jones wasn’t lost for the year due to academics, it would be hard to set this number any higher than what it is.
Given the loss of Jones, and the fact that all of Notre Dame’s tight ends combined for exactly one touchdown last season–which came on a fake field goal–it’s hard to imagine this position suddenly being a rich source of end zone entry. However, it is the season of optimism and Nic Weisher has been doing things that make people think he can do some things. Plus, it’s hard to score zero times, right? Regression to the mean tells me that given last seasons goose egg, they are good for at least four this time.
Total Rushing Yards In 2016: 2,999.5
To be clear, this is not a small number. Notre Dame hasn’t run for 3,000 yards since 1996 and only did so on two other occasions under Lou Holtz in the 90’s. They came as close to this number as they ever have since ’96 when they ran for 2703 yards last season. What makes this number significant is it would put them around the top 15-20 rushing teams nationally (Notre Dame was 27th last year), and in some seasons around the top 10. Further, all but two of the last eight national champions have reached the 3,000 yard rushing mark or better.
It’s an elite number. Given the reputation of Harry Hiestand and the excellence that has been the offensive line recruiting the last few years, is it time for Notre Dame’s best unit to bring in an elite running game? A case can be made that of all the non-quarterbacks, the two best players on the entire team play on the left side of the offensive line. As noted above, last years line was 27th nationally running, with 2703 yards. The caveat to that is they were 76th in rushing attempts, with only 480. With a greater emphasis on the running game that features a trio of strong running backs, and a greater freedom to use the quarterbacks as runners, it’s completely conceivable the Irish ground game tops 3,000 yards. It is the season of optimism after all.