It’s time for the annual Better or Worse series, where I look at the units on the team that has, you guessed it, gotten better or worse from the previous season. It gives a good idea of the strengths of the team, how they are going to win games, and informs the matchups of the upcoming opponents.
When going through the list of the units, it dawned on me there might need to be a “same” category this year because some units did not get better or worse – they’re pretty much stayed the same. We’ll get to that when they come up, but as you may imagine, following a 12-0 season, units staying where they were isn’t the worst thing ever.
We’ll begin today with the good news, the units that have improved themselves, on both offense and defense.
Very much the same cast of characters, except one year older, stronger, and more experienced. This is probably the best news of all. If there is any group that a.) needed to get better and b.) any team wants to be really good, it’s the offensive line. Eichenberg, Banks, Kraemer, and Hainsey all started games last year, were all top 200 players, and all have eligibility beyond this season. The 6th man is top 150 Josh Lugg, and there are a plethora of highly ranked players waiting their turn.
The wildcard is Jarrett Patterson at center. The redshirt freshman moved there to start spring practice and had the job won at that moment. It’s difficult not to hype Patterson too much. After all, this fall will be his first action in a college football game, but the coaches have been raving about him and practice observers have been equally bullish. If he ties an offensive line riddled with experience and talent together, this group could pave the way for another double-digit win season.
Alize Mack to Cole Kmet is a wash, and I say that as someone who is a little skittish about what Kmet will do this year. Most close to the program believe Kmet is a step up from last season. Brock Wright is looking as good as he ever has and will likely see lots of snaps this season.
The wild card is Tommy Tremble, who looked good to observers in spring practice, to the point where people started to concoct ways for him to get into the lineup. Even Brian Kelly praised Tremble unprompted multiple times. If Tremble is a real factor and the Irish are genuinely three deep at tight end, that raises the level above last season without a doubt.
This position is one where I can argue for staying the same. Boykin, Finke, Claypool is similar to Claypool, Finke, and Young for me, figuring Claypool and Finke take leaps in their games. Kevin Austin and his situation complicate the issue. If I knew when he was playing from the start, it’s a no-brainer pick. He’s looked awesome this offseason according to reports. He’s been in Matt Balis’s “starving” category in workouts. Big things would be predicted across the board if his situation was stable. But, it is not, so we are mostly left wondering.
That said, the additions of Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy, and Joe Wilkins to the lineup gives Notre Dame options at receiver with skillsets they did not have last season. It’s a deeper unit in the back with lots of experience and upside upfront. Winning combination.
Without hyperbole, Notre Dame is six deep at defensive end and the top two sit at the top of the sport. Any program in America would want Okwara and Kareem starting for them. Those facts in and of themselves make this group an improvement from last season. Losing Tillery and Bonner hurts the interior, obviously, but the quartet of MTA, Hinish, Jayson Ademilola, and Jacob Lacy should be more than competitive in the middle.
There are also lineups where Notre Dame can get Okwara, Kareem, and Hayes on the field at the same time–mainly third downs–with disruptors like MTA or Jayson Ademilola providing that fourth rusher. The possibilities are endless and are enough to make fans downright giddy.
Stalwarts Gilman and Elliott return, they lost backup Devin Studstill to transfer, but gain freshman Kyle Hamilton, an upgrade straight away. The question is what to make of redshirt freshmen Derrik Allen and DJ Brown? Can those two provide depth behind the two starters and allow them to play more significant roles elsewhere on the defense–perhaps at nickel–to maximize the defense’s potential?
Allen might be the most talked-about player on the team over the offseason, with everyone wondering what his body looks like and whether he is ready to fulfill the promise he had when he signed with Notre Dame. The reviews have been mixed. Sometimes the word is good and things are falling into place. Other times DJ Brown is mentioned ahead of him from a coaches confidence standpoint. It should be noted that Brown leaves the summer program in the “starving” workout category, while Allen did not earn that distinction. Perhaps it’s something, maybe it’s nothing, but it’s a data point nevertheless.
Still, at the very least, Allen and/or Brown can give them what Studstill provided last year, and with the addition of Hamilton, plus whatever improvements Elliott and Gilman make to their games, this position is in a better place than it was last season.