Fresh off another playoff appearance, Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish will look to replace key NFL departures and reload for a new playoff push. While assessing the future stars in South Bend, this article will focus on the players that have not yet had “breakout seasons” in college football. Indeed, players such as Jack Coan, Chris Tyree, Braden Lenzy, and Clarence Lewis have the potential to take their games to the next level, but they have already proven themselves and will not be included in this column.
The high school star has a high ceiling at wide receiver. Jordan Johnson was the #6 receiver and the #37 overall player according to 247 Sports for the 2020 class but did not have a catch last season. The 6’ 1” wide receiver out of Saint Louis has the potential to be one of the top wide receivers under Brian Kelly. Fortunately, Johnson has not lost any eligibility and will hopefully be a significant part of the Irish Offense next fall.
Jordan Johnson can bridge the gap with playoff opponents. The most significant disparity between Notre Dame and Alabama is at the skill positions. Brian Kelly must find a way to expand on recruiting and develop the players on the active roster. There was no single team last year who had Alabama’s talent, so it is not fair to only compare the Irish to the Crimson Tide.
Notre Dame does not have a player that compares to Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, but Brian Kelly must make the most of the talent he does have, like Jordan Johnson in this upcoming season.
Kevin Austin Jr.
Kevin Austin Jr. was the projected #1 receiver in 2020. Unfortunately, Tommy Rees was without his greatest offensive weapon in year one as offensive coordinator. In his short career for the Fighting Irish, the wideout has just six catches for 108 yards. Even though he does not bring back on the field experience, Austin Jr. can help with leadership on and off the field for players like Jordan Johnson.
Tommy Rees will gain another major weapon. Notre Dame rarely utilized the deep ball last year. There were a few instances where Ben Skowronek had a couple of deep receptions against Pittsburgh, but almost all the passes downfield were jump balls or 50/50 opportunities. How many times in 2020 did the Irish get behind coverage like Will Fuller circa 2015 or Braden Lenzy a few seasons ago?
The reason was partially the lack of play-calling and personnel on the field. Notre Dame does not return much production from a year ago, but the projected starters’ speed and athleticism is incredible.
Irish look to replace four starters along the offensive line. Under Head Coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame has become known as the country’s best offensive line factory. In just a decade, Notre Dame has produced players such as Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Zack Martin, and Aaron Banks, to name a few.
Carroll is projected to start at guard next season and continue the legacy of Nelson and Banks at their spot along the offensive front.
Can Quinn Carroll be the next great Irish Offensive Lineman? According to 247 Sports, the Minnesota native was the #118 player in the country. He was listed at 6’ 6” and 306 pounds for the Fighting Irish a year ago. If Brian Kelly wants to continue to dominate opponents in the trenches and create physicality, Quinn Carroll must become the player many anticipate.
Isaiah Foskey has wreaked havoc on special teams. In his first two seasons, Foskey has made a major impact by blocking punts. In 2019, his blocked punt turned into 7-points just three plays later and catapulted the Irish into their first victory at Stanford since 2007. Last season, he was able to block a punt against Pittsburgh and scoop it up for a touchdown. Before halftime, his effort demoralized the Panthers and clinched a victory for the Fighting Irish on the road.
Foskey must be Notre Dame’s best pass rusher in 2021. It is excellent news that Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa return for the Irish next fall. Still, as interior linemen, they do not produce as many sacks as the edge rushers. A season ago, the pair of defensive linemen totaled 4.5 sacks. Adetokunbo Ogundeji led the team with 7 sacks, and Isaiah Foskey was second on the team with 4.5 sacks as a backup.
If Isaiah Foskey had that many sacks as a backup, expect those numbers to go up as a projected starter next season.
Experience returning for the Irish Defense. With the departure of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Isaiah Pryor could be the next man up. Prior has 53 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 interception in his career with both the Buckeyes and Irish. Not only will he bring back on the field experience, but he can also be a great leader for the Notre Dame Defense. He could also figure into the mix at his original position, safety, as well.
Potential Captain for Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman. The Irish will lose all five captains from the roster in 2020. Isaiah Pryor has been vocal on social media about stepping up and anticipating his time as the Notre Dame linebacker. The rover spot may be the most crucial position on the field for the Irish Defense and is exemplified by leadership and situational awareness.
Freeman has already made an impact on the Notre Dame recruiting trail and will undoubtedly get the most out of the players returning next fall.
There is a long list of potential breakout players in 2021. I only listed a few of the players who can potentially breakout year for the Fighting Irish. There has already been roster turnover with players leaving for the NFL, which is only fitting with a roster that helped Notre Dame go to the College Football Playoffs in 2020 and many players who contributed back in 2018 as well.
I hope Brian Kelly utilizes more of the speed and young talent next season.
The goal is to get back to the College Football Playoffs. Regardless of how many players the Irish lost from a season ago, the expectation must be to make it back to the playoffs. Notre Dame has a projected schedule of four ranked teams that include North Carolina, USC, Cincinnati, and Wisconsin at this moment.
Even though fans are disheartened about the outcome of the Rose Bowl, Brian Kelly will be primed to get the Irish back to the playoffs or potentially a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. If the Irish want to reach these goals and make it five-straight 10-win seasons, these players must breakout on the gridiron this fall.