Notre Dame’s star players rose to the occassion on Saturday in the Irish’s big win over Michigan. Jerry Tillery, Tevon Coney, Julian Love, Brandon Wimbush, and their other establish starters brought their “A” games against the Wolverines. It was Notre Dame’s new starters though that may have just been the difference in the seven point win. Notre Dame had some monster performances from new faces in their lineup that should have Irish eyes smiling all season.
Let’s take a look back at some of those faces and how they compare to the players they have replaced.
Note, I did leave Miles Boykin off this list since he started in the Citrus Bowl and it was wildly reported that Boykin has been the best receiver on the roster since the spring.
When Jay Hayes used a graduate transfer to Georgia in the spring, the popular school of thought was that he may have seen the writing on the wall with Khalid Kareem ascending up the depth chart at the strong side defensive end position. Some thought that was a bit of a pie in the sky outlook. Kareem showed against Michigan that it wasn’t just wishful thinking.
Notre Dame’s new strong side defensive end was all over the field against Michigan racking up 8 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and 1 sack in his starting debut. (Note: Kareem was originally credited with 2 sacks before the second was credited to Jerry Tillery). In his three seasons of action for Notre Dame, the Irish never got such an outing from Hayes – even with Kareem losing one those sacks. It’s early but it looks pretty accurate to say that it already looks like the Irish have upgraded at SDE.
Notre Dame lost three running backs from its 2017 roster in the off-season to the NFL and dismissals. It forced Brian Kelly, Chip Long, and Autry Denson to look elsewhere for some help. With wide receiver crowded and a stacked incoming freshman class, Armstrong was part of the answer.
In just a few short months Armstrong has gone from wide receiver to possibly Notre Dame’s lead back. He was for the first week of the season anyway. Armstrong ran the ball 15 times to pace the Irish backs while reaching the endzone twice in his collegiate debut. Tony Jones Jr might have run for more yards, but Armstrong had six more attempts.
It’s tough to say how Armstrong will ultimately stack up against previous Notre Dame backs given the stacked defense the Irish faced. It’s also tough to say where he will fit into the pecking order once Dexter Williams is available again too. We saw enough to know that the move to running back could end up paying dividends for the Irish for a long time.
The hype had been building for Alohi Gilman ever since last summer when it was reported that Gilman would have started for the Irish a year ago already. Even then some curmudgeon Notre Dame fans didn’t want to believe it because Gilman was a Navy transfer. Welp, any Notre Dame fan still questioning why the Irish took a Navy transfer either didn’t watch last week’s game or is just so miserable nothing will make them happy.
Alohi Gilman was all over the field on Saturday night. It was hard to miss Gilman watching from the stands. It was impossible to miss him when I rewatched the game last night.
Part of me was worried that the hype around Gilman was at least partially inflated based on how bad the Notre Dame safeties were a year ago. If his starting debut for Notre Dame is any indication, it was not at all. Gilman was the steadying force at safety that the Notre Dame defense sorely lacked a year ago. I can’t wait to see this kid line up against Stanford later this month.
One week into the season it’s very clear that Gilman is a big upgrade on what Notre Dame had at safety a season ago.
Heading into fall camp Asmar Bilal didn’t have the ROVER spot locked up despite entering his senior season and being challenged by a couple of youngsters. Part of the reason for that stemmed from Bilal’s struggles in coverage over the course of the last two seasons. He had always been a gifted athlete at linebacker, but he struggled anytime he was asked to drop into coverage.
In his starting debut at ROVER Bilal wasn’t perfect, but he was a lot better than most expected him to be. Michigan didn’t exactly target him but then again, he didn’t give them much opportunity to. He ended the game with 4 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 QBH.
There will still be plenty of challenges down the road for Bilal – specifically in a few weeks when Stanford and their tight end friendly offense comes to town. Can Bilal be as effective at the ROVER as Drue Tranquill was last year? He still has a lot to prove before we can even contemplate that. Bilal passed his first test as a ROVER in this defense though.
The one new starter who didn’t have the greatest of debuts was left tackle Liam Eichenberg. Everyone should have seen that coming though. The Ohio native had to face off against All Americans Rashaun Gary and Chase Winovich in his first collegiate start. Predictably, Eichenberg struggled at times throughout the evening. The future is still very bright for Eichenberg though and I would be shocked if he didn’t come out and have a dominating performance this weekend against Ball State.
Eichenberg’s baptism by fire last weekend against Michigan is going to serve him very well later in the year when Notre Dame faces some more good defenses. The good news for Eichenberg and the entire offensive line is that they won’t face a better defensive line again this season unless the Irish reach the playoffs.
All in all Notre Dame’s new starters played exceptionally well last weekend on a grand stage. There is still obviously a ton of football left to be played this year but fans should be very excited about everyone mentioned here moving forward.