Technically it is still the pre-season on the eve of Notre Dame and Michigan kicking off their 2018 seasons. Yeah other teams have played already, but does the season really start for any of you before the Irish play their first game? Nah, didn’t think so. Before we get to the Irish and the Wolverines this weekend, we have the opportunity to ask Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) of the South Bend Tribune’s ND Insider six questions about the 2018 Fighting Irish that we have to share with you today.
Note: ND Insider is running a heck of a special right now. They are offering 30% off their annual subscription rate. That’s an entire year of their premium content for $69.
1. Do you expect any dropoff in the Notre Dame defense under Clark Lea or will the Irish take a step forward?
“I do not expect any decline. I think Notre Dame’s defense will improve at every level: the linemen will be better, the linebackers will be better and the secondary will be better. I’m most bullish on the defensive line. I expect breakout seasons from Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem at defensive end. I think Jerry Tillery can have an even greater impact playing defensive tackle rather than nose guard. Even Jonathan Bonner should be better after apparently playing with a broken right wrist last season.
“News of Shaun Crawford’s ACL injury should be concerning. Using him as a nickelback was going to take pressure off of Asmar Bilal at the rover position. Will they rely on Bilal or another rover now? Will Nick Coleman move down to play nickelback? Does that bring Jalen Elliott or Houston Griffith into the game at safety? Lea probably already has an answer to these questions, but we’ll have to see how it plays out on the field.”
2. Will Brandon Wimbush start every game in 2018? (Not taking into account injuries)
“I think so. It’s pretty clear that’s what Brian Kelly would prefer. He has the potential to be more dynamic than Ian Book ever could be. Could this offense be successful with Book? I think so. But I think it would look different.
I anticipate offensive coordinator Chip Long to better design his offense around Wimbush’s strengths and weaknesses. I think last season was a learning experience for both Wimbush and Long, and the offense should be in better shape this season because of it.”
3. Will either Jafar Armstrong or Avery Davis rush for over 400 yards this year?
“I’m very high on Jafar Armstrong this season, so I expect him to surpass 400 rushing yards this season. He can do a little bit of everything. The coaches have continued to praise his conditioning. So I don’t think they need to worry about him not being able to handle a full workload. Without Dexter Williams in the lineup, Armstrong is Notre Dame’s most explosive running back.
I’m less sure how Davis will fare as a full-time runner. I see him as more of a gadget player than Armstrong. I’d anticipate him getting more sweeps and outside runs than anything in between the tackles. I do like Davis as a receiver on screens too.”
4. Who is one player no one is talking about much this summer who everyone will be talking about in November?
“That’s tough because the Notre Dame roster gets dissected by so many media members. But I’ll take a flyer on two players: wide receiver Chris Finke and cornerback Donte Vaughn.
Finke continues to be overlooked as the team’s slot receiver. And I do think there will be a lot of scenarios where Notre Dame will opt to play two tight ends rather than a slot receiver. But Finke has refused to give up the starting slot role, and we consistently see him making plays in practices every year.
I don’t think he’s going to be a go-to weapon, but I think he has the ability to help with some important third-down conversions.
As for Vaughn, I’m curious to see if he gets in the mix in Crawford’s absence. Of course, he won’t be sliding into the nickelback role, but maybe Notre Dame takes a look at playing Julian Love or Troy Pride Jr. inside on occasions and that brings Vaughn onto the field. He’s impressively physically. We haven’t really seen that translate to the field, but maybe something clicks for him this season.”
5. Will anyone on the Notre Dame defense record 8 or more sacks this season?
“I’ll say no, though I think they could end up with a couple guys close to that number. I’m not sure that there will be a wide gap between the sack leader and the others around him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and maybe even Jerry Tillery finish around the same number.”
6, How do you see this season playing out for Notre Dame as of now?
“I’m sticking with the 10-2 prediction I logged in our ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. But I do think one of those two losses will come this weekend against Michigan. I’m expecting another long winning streak in the middle of the season with either Florida State or USC ended that streak for the second loss.
As long as the offense doesn’t give the ball away a lot, I expect this defense to keep this team in every game. How Brandon Wimbush improves and the inexperienced running backs develop will likely determine if the Irish can win those close games or fall short.”
Reminder: If you liked the answers that Tyler provided for us, check out the season opener promo before it expires and if a year is too long of a commitment for you, they offer monthly and day passes too.