One of the most positive surprising developments for Notre Dame in 2019 is the development of a trio of players who many – myself included – wrote off at the beginning of the year proving everyone wrong and playing vital roles in Notre Dame entering their second bye of the season at 5-1 and inside the top 10. Asmar Bilal, Tony Jones Jr, and Jonathan Doerer are all big reasons why the Irish have that 5-1 record. Without them, the Irish are 4-2 at best.
When Matt, Greg, and I ranked our top 25 players in the summer, none of these three players made the composite top 25. If we were to do a mid-season reranking, all three would be there, and some may crack the top 10.
Jonathan Doerer Joins Rare Company
Heading into fall camp, it was widely considered that incoming freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard would challenge Doerer for the placekicking duties in 2019. Doerer struggled with kick-offs in his first two seasons, and his spring practice experience didn’t do a whole lot to instill confidence that he would lock down the job.
Even when Doerer won the job in the summer, most felt that he would be called upon within 40 yards, and anything longer would be a crapshoot at best. Boy were we wrong. Against USC Doerer became just the second kicker in Notre Dame history to make three field goals of 40 or more yards in the same game. He was a perfect 3 for 3 connecting on 43, 45, and 52-yard attempts. Only Kyle Brindza has kicked a longer field goal in a Notre Dame uniform than Doerer’s 52-yard on Saturday.
With Doerer’s performance against the Trojans, Brian Kelly’s confidence in his kicker must be sky-high. What was one time thought to be a significant liability for the Irish could now be a weapon. Most Irish fans worried that field goal kicking would ultimately cost Notre Dame a game in 2019. Last weekend, Doerer’s kicking won Notre Dame the game. Without him connecting on all three, Notre Dame loses that game.
Kicking on the road is a whole other beast, but Notre Dame fans should have confidence that if called upon, Doerer can deliver in two weeks in Ann Arbor.
Tony Jones Jr Powering Notre Dame’s Rushing Attack
When Notre Dame lost Jafar Armstrong on the first series of the season-opener, Notre Dame fans thought the ground game was doomed. Tony Jones Jr had flashed at times in his career, but he was too slow, too injury prone, and not dynamic enough to led the charge.
After six games, Jones is on pace for 1,206 yards (over 13 games) and 9 touchdowns. He’s averaging 7.0 yards per carry and has performances of 110, 131, 102, and most recently 176 yards against USC. His total would be even higher had Kelly and staff intentionally not mainly rested him in the tune-up against New Mexico.
Some of Jones’s limitations have still been on display this year, but his strengths have far outweighed them, and we’ve seen Jones be a powerful runner that we hadn’t seen him be the last two years. He’s still not winning many foot races, but if he continues to average 7.0 yards a carry this season, no one should care.
The great news here is that Jones can return in 2020 and be paired with hopefully a healthy Jafar Armstrong – we haven’t seen that duo work together much yet this year – and incoming freshman Chris Tyree who can be the lightning to Jones’s thunder. Until then, expect to see Jones rack up a lot more yardage over the final six regular-season games and in the postseason.
Asmar Bilal Finally Living Up to Vast Potential
Perhaps the most surprising player here is 5th year senior Asmar Bilal. At no point in his career did he give much hope of becoming a dynamic, playmaking linebacker for Notre Dame this year. He was routinely out of position and never displayed the kind of instincts to give much hope the light would turn on. Most felt that even though Bilal was the only returning backer with any starting experience, Notre Dame’s best group of linebackers didn’t include him.
Even in the season opener, Bilal looked out of place. Since then, Bilal has been dynamite for Notre Dame. Against USC, he racked up 11 tackles with 2 TFL giving him 5 TFL on the season. He was a heat syncing missile on Saturday night.
Everyone thought Bilal would be a liability against pass-happy teams over the summer, yet there he was leading the way on Saturday night against the most dynamic passing attack Notre Dame will face in 2019.
Bilal is third on the team in tackles through six games with 35 just three behind team-leader Alohi Gilman. At the pace Bilal is on, it would not be surprising if he moved up the leaderboard even more by the end of the season.
Up until now, Asmar Bilal has been an extremely gifted athlete who has always been more athlete than football player. In 2019, he is developing into one hell of a football player and is a big reason why the Notre Dame linebackers are developing into a strength for the defense when everyone was convinced they would be a major weakness.
Notre Dame needs these three players to continue to play at a high level over the second half of the year to reach the heights they want to achieve – along with getting some players who have underachieved to step their games up. So far, though, all three have proved everyone – myself included – very wrong and have been an absolute joy to watch each weekend.