ESPN’s Bill Connelly produced an article earlier this week on the most significant “ifs” for each of the top team’s chances of a championship run. Connelly listed 4 “ifs” for Notre Dame missed the mark both in terms of the details and the big picture.
Before diving too deep into this, I will say doing a deep dive like this on so many teams is a challenging endeavor given all the intricacies of each roster. That said, the Notre Dame portion of this analysis makes it clear that it was really just based on looking at a stat sheet and depth chart.
Let’s start by taking a look at the four ifs Connelly laid out for Notre Dame.
- A new receiving corps clicks
- A star running back emerges from a crowded race
- Young DBs play like veterans
- The Irish overcome a lack of beef
Before going into the details, it’s almost shocking that “Ian Book taking a big step forward” isn’t listed as one of the ifs. Book had a great statistical year in 2019, but he had a rough first half of the season. He had the ball in his hands on the road at Georgia with a chance to win the game late and came up short. Then he had one of the worst games of his Irish career against Michigan. After his game-winning drive against Virginia Tech, however, he was a different player.
All that said, if Book doesn’t elevate his game in 2020, Notre Dame does not have a chance at making a title run. If Book plays as he did versus Georgia against Clemson in November, Notre Dame loses that game. If he plays as he did against Michigan when Notre Dame takes on Wisconsin, the Irish likely lose that game too.
There are signs that we haven’t seen the best of Ian Book yet and that he has the potential to be an elite quarterback, but he will need to take that step forward for any chance at a title run in 2020. He is closer to that than some Notre Dame fans think too, but again, to me, that is easily the biggest if for Notre Dame to make a title run.
When it comes to needing the new receiving corps to click, that is undoubtedly true, but the player who holds the key to that – Kevin Austin – wasn’t even mentioned by ESPN. If Austin doesn’t play to the level that most insiders close to the program think he can, the receiving corps doesn’t have the chance to be elite enough to propel a title run. Bennett Skowronek can be a good reliable option, Braden Lenzy showed he could be a game-breaker already, Lawrence Keys has flashed to a lesser extent, and Jordan Johnson could play early. All that said, Austin represents the one receiver on the roster with the potential to be a legit, top tier #1 target.
Connelly was right about the running back rotation. It’s the most significant question mark of the entire offense right now. Some of the deficiencies here can be masked with elite play from Book, but Notre Dame needs multiple backs to develop in camp because we are almost certainly looking at a committee in 2020. One name to watch that wasn’t mentioned by ESPN, however, is Kyren Williams.
When it comes to the secondary, it was surprising to read, “while veterans like corner TaRiq Bracy and NC State transfer Nick McCloud could be ready for larger roles, success will be determined by how many blue-chippers from the 2019 class — sophomore Kyle Hamilton and redshirt freshmen KJ Wallace, Litchfield Ajavon, Isaiah Rutherford, Cam Hart — look the part early in their careers.”
While McCloud is not guaranteed to start, Bracy is going to start, and Shaun Crawford will play a huge role as well. At safety, Houston Griffith and Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor are going to be significant factors. Notre Dame will need those sophomore defensive backs for depth, but outside of Hamilton, it’s likely none of the other sophomores emerge from camp in starting roles.
Notre Dame’s “lack of beef” is a legit concern as well. Notre Dame doesn’t have a Louis Nix on the roster, but the depth on the interior of the defensive line is better than it was a year ago. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish return as starters. Jayson Ademilola is entering his junior year and could be ready for a breakout season. Jacob Lacey played more as a freshman than anyone would have liked, and that experience will serve him well in 2020. And Ja’Mion Franklin will be almost two years entirely removed from a scary calf injury that limited his preparedness for the 2019 season from a weight training perspective. Add all of that up, and Notre Dame’s interior defensive line shouldn’t be a major concern.
One team that might press that defensive line though, is Wisconsin. The Badgers always have a top-notch running attack, and they could put pressure on Notre Dame’s depth.
One other omission from this “if” list is new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Brian Kelly placed a lot of trust into a 27-year-old, first-time offensive coordinator this off-season. There is a lot of reasons to believe that faith will pay off and that it could help get the most out of Book, but that is still a big wildcard for Notre Dame in 2020 – especially when you consider that Rees has to go head to head with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables in November.
I still keep coming back to the biggest “if” for Notre Dame being Ian Book, though. Notre Dame needs Book to be much better in big games in 2020 than he was in 2019 or the 2018 Playoffs. If he’s not, Notre Dame will probably lose at least two regular-season games again this year and miss the playoffs. If he elevates his game, and there is reason to think he will, then the sky is the limit for this team.