The difference between top 20 vs. top 10 and top 10 vs. playoff contender teams often isn’t their top 22 players – it’s in their depth and their reserves. Elite teams attack you with waves of players so that they are fresh in the 4th quarter. Notre Dame might just have the deepest roster of the Brian Kelly era in 2018 because of their reserves. Those reserves could mean the difference between a legit run at the playoffs and just another flirtation that leaves fans asking what if once again.
Today we’ll take a look at eight players who likely won’t start baring injury in 2018 but who Notre Dame needs to have breakthrough seasons in order to legitimately contend for a playoff spot all season long – not just through the first two months.
It’s no secret that Notre Dame is in search of a pass rush. They have been for the last five seasons. If the Irish defensive line is to provide that pass rush, Julian Okwara has to be a key piece of the puzzle. After playing at a shockingly low 230 lbs in the spring, Okwara bulked back up to 240 lbs and is expected to play the role of pass rush specialists for Notre Dame this fall.
Okwara won’t be a starter over 260 lbs Daelin Hayes, but on obvious pass rushing downs, it’s easy to envision Clark Lea having Okwara and Hayes on the field at the same time with Khalid Kareem sliding inside. That could be a lot to ask of a player who only had 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks a season ago.
Okwara’s older brother Romeo saw a jump from 0.5 sacks to 4.0 sacks from his sophomore to junior seasons at Notre Dame. So the younger Okwara is already ahead of the pace of his big brother. If Notre Dame can get a similar jump in production from the younger Okwara brother, the pass rush should progress forward.
Alize Mack is one of the biggest enigmas on the 2018 roster. His talent and skill have never been in doubt. As he enters his senior campaign, however, the production just has not been there. A year ago Brian Kelly described him as uncoverable in practice. Well, being uncoverable resulted in just 19 receptions for 166 yards and one meaningless touchdown in 2017.
If Mack is unable to take the step forward evenyone’s been waiting for, Kmet could have his number called. In fact, even if Mack does step forward, Kmet will have his opportunity to shine in 2018. Chip Long came to Notre Dame with a reputation for utilizing multiple tight end sets often. We didn’t see that much in 2017, but should this fall with Kmet and Mack. Kmet has a bright future at Notre Dame and could easily be the next in line at Tight End U if Mack never realizes his potential.
By the time the Michigan game kicks off, Coleman may no longer even be considered a reserve. A year ago Coleman moved to safety from corner and provided Notre Dame some stability on the backend of the defense. He, like the rest of the safeties though, didn’t deliver many huge, impactful plays. That could change this fall.
Coleman’s been one of the surprises of camp this summer after losing his starting position in the spring. Jalen Elliot and Alohi Gilman were the starting safeties when spring concluded with Houston Griffith nipping at their tales. Griffith has battled a bit of a hamstring issue in camp and Coleman has been the beneficiary. Brian Kelly has been singing the praises of Coleman the last two weeks to the point that it would be a surprise if Coleman did not get some regular playing time this fall.
I firmly believe that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will be an All-American for Notre Dame before his career is over. That won’t be this year, but it will come. Lord Myron will have to wait another year to be a starter for the Irish, but in 2018 he has the chance to be a very disruptive reserve for the Irish.
Using a deep defensive line rotation is the new envogue thing to do in football and Tagovailoa-Amosa figures to be a vital part of that rotation for Notre Dame behind Jerry Tillery.
After being thrust into playing time as a true freshman, he collected just 2.0 TFL and is still looking for his first career sack. In an ideal world, Tagovailoa-Amosa wouldn’t have been called upon as a true freshmen though. With a full year of experience under his belt and a full off-season with Matt Balis, Lord Myron will improve upon both of those numbers by the end of September.
Let’s stick to the defensive line for now. Like Lord Myron, Kurt Hinish was called upon as a true freshman before he probably was truly ready. He held his own though. Hinish only had 0.5 TFL but he too should improve upon those numbers early in the season.
As a sophomore Hinish is tasked with backing up Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle. Bonner is playing NT for the first time in his career and there are still some lingering questions as to how well he will hold up playing his new position. That makes Hinish’s role as Bonner’s backup even more important for the Irish defense in 2018.
Alright, let’s just round out the entire second string defensive line. Ade Ogundeji doesn’t get talked about as much as the other reserve DL but perhaps he should. He came to Notre Dame extremely raw but has been developing nicely the last two years. In 2018, he will back up Khalid Kareem this fall and should see the field plenty as Notre Dame rotates its defensive linemen.
Ogundeji didn’t register a tackle last year so his first tackle this fall will be the first of his career. Notre Dame doesn’t need him to go from zero career tackles to 30 with 5 or 6 for loss this year, but they will need him to hold up well enough to spell Kareem.
Notre Dame had great success last year utilizing a two man rotation at right tackle with Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey. There hasn’t been any indication that they will do the same this year with Josh Lugg and current projected starter Liam Eichenberg – at least to the same extent of a near 50/50 split. That said, Lugg figures to play quite a bit this fall and if there are any injuries, Lugg could be the first man in. If Eichenberg struggles as a first year starter, or fades down the stretch, Lugg could have his number called as well.
Lugg’s development this year is also crucial for 2019 when Notre Dame has to replace Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher along the offensive line.
Notre Dame’s starting defense has the talent to be the best defense of the Brian Kelly area – even better than the 2012 unit potentially. The one area where some questions linger are depth along the linebacker positions. Tevon Coney, Drue Tranquill, and apparently Asmar Bilal (who now appears locked in as the starting ROVER) give Notre Dame a strong set of starters. The depth behind them – Coney and Tranquill especially, however, is untested.
Jonathan Jones might be a bit undersized for an ideal MIKE but he had a pretty good spring and has been having a pretty good camp. Notre Dame ideally needs Jones to provide some depth behind Coney while he is groomed to be a potential successor. If Jones doesn’t look that backup spot up, freshman Bo Bauer could end up passing him.
How these eight players develop and play in 2018 will go a long way in determining of Notre Dame is preparing for a playoff game or another second tier bowl game in December. All have the talent to one day be impactful starters – even star players – for the Irish. In 2018, Notre Dame just needs them all to play at a high level when called upon. If they do that, the Irish will be in god shape.
Rotate that depth starting first game. A spark created by a talented replacement can turn a game around whether on O or D. Fresh legs can cause a turnover , sack , fumble , interception on D . Fresh legs of an RB , WR , TE , can open up new adventures(did I just say “New Adventures”). Irish need SPECIAL TEAMS to be SPECIAL in hunt for playoffs. Need a kick off returner that has reputation/threat to go all the way–like the Rocket did or the kid from Penn State last season (Barkley, also RB). Give Dexter Williams a shot at it–how bad could it be ? Go Irish.
Another way of stating the obvious about what makes a playoff team is depth at every position. This has been a major problem for the Irish for a long time.
We are in great shape with other back ups Doerer, Book and Jurkovec. They will get their chance.