Notre Dame heads into the bye week at 7-0 and ranked #4 in the country in both polls. The Irish have already achieved a start to the season that few thought possible, but now bigger things are in their sights. The Irish have a great chance to win out and make the playoffs for the first time. To do that, however, Notre Dame will need to continue to improve and build upon their strong start. Six players in particular can help fuel a run to the playoffs over the second half of the year.
This list by the way is meant to identify players who can improve to make a difference for the Irish so someone like Ian Book isn’t listed since that is pretty obvious.
Miles Boykin has had a nice three week stretch 348 yards on 23 receptions for four touchdowns. He’s clearly defined himself as Notre Dame’s top wide receiver. What the Irish now need is a clear #2 threat. Chase Claypool can be that receiver and we are seeing some signs of that happening. He got off to a slow start, but he now has scored a touchdown in three of the last four games – all Ian Book starts. Last week against Pitt he had a season high 61 yards. A modest total, but it was encouraging to see his usage increase as Ian Book gets more snaps.
In the pre-season, I thought Claypool had the chance to have a breakout year and end up leading Notre Dame in receiving yards. It seems pretty clear that will not happen – he is currently 3rd behind Boykin and Chris Finke. If Claypool and Book can build on the connection they had on the slant route against Pitt though, Claypool could help this offense take another step forward over the final five games of the year.
The Notre Dame offensive line has had its ups and downs this year. Saturday was one of the downs. Pitt decided to take away the run from Notre Dame and they did just that. Part of that was Pitt committing extra defenders in the box, but part of it was some missed and blown assignments from the Irish offensive line. Junior Tommy Kraemer specifically had a rough game and he’s had a rough season to date. He’s been banged up a bit at times, but also came out earlier in the year for non-injury reasons.
Kraemer has a lot of talent and has the size to be a monster at guard for the Irish, but has struggled to date. Last year he was unable to hold off then freshman Robert Hainsey at right tackle and ended up splitting time with him. This year he moved to right guard and hasn’t quite found his stride yet. If he can find it over the last five games, the Notre Dame offensive line has a chance to be very good. As is, the line is still a work in progress.
When Notre Dame lost Alex Bars for the season against Stanford the short term solution was easy – plug in Trevor Ruhland who had already been playing some for Tommy Kraemer. Long term though, Ruhland is more natural center as a smaller, quicker lineman. He is not exactly a natural guard – especially against teams with strong defensive lines. That is why Notre Dame has been inserting sophomore Aaron Banks into the mix as well.
Looking down the road a bit, if Notre Dame does indeed make the playoffs, they are going to need Banks to develop a lot over these next five games and be ready for even more playing time. Should Notre Dame face a defensive front from the likes Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State; they are going to need Banks’s size. Remember what happened when Notre Dame went into the National Title game with some undersized linemen like Mike Golic Jr? It wasn’t pretty.
Of all the players on the Notre Dame roster, Banks’s development over the last five games of the year is probably the most pivotal should the Irish reach the playoffs.
Coming off a knee injury after the bye, it will be interesting to see how much he gets used right away, but it is clear Notre Dame could use Jafar Armstrong. With Tony Jones Jr still hobbled by his balky ankle, Armstrong will immediately be thrown back in the mix with Dexter Williams. Armstrong was just starting to get comfortable as a running back before his injury so hopefully he will be able to just pick right back up where he left off.
Through four games Armstrong ran for 245 yards on 47 carries (5.2 ypc average) with five touchdowns. Getting his production back in the backfield will be a boost to a Notre Dame running game that struggled to get anything going against Pitt. Armstrong can also have a positive impact on the passing game over the final five games. Williams isn’t a huge receiving threat and with Jones banged up, he hasn’t been involved in the passing game. Armstrong, the former receiver, will help there as well.
If you don’t recall hearing Jonathan Bonner’s name much this year, you are not alone. It’s been a quiet start to the season for Notre Dame’s starting nose tackle. Bonner has just 12 tackles through seven games with none coming for a loss and just one quarterback hurry. Part of that comes with the territory of being a nose tackle in this defense, but Notre Dame could use more production out of the position. Some of Bonner’s snaps have been going to sophomore Kurt Hinish though he Pittsburgh native himself has just seven tackles on the season.
In reality, Notre Dame is not going to get huge production out of Bonner or Hinish this year and they really don’t need to. With Jerry Tillery racking up sacks and the Notre Dame pass rush coming in waves, they need Bonner and Hinish to primarily be space eaters this year. They are doing that fine for now, but if Notre Dame wants to get to the playoffs and maybe make some noise, they will need some more production out of this position.
Another player who can help move the Notre Dame offense forward even more is Alize Mack. We all know Chip Long loved utilizing the tight end in previous coaching stops, but it has not become a weapon for the Irish. At least not in the fashion that we all became accustomed to when Notre Dame was busy producing high draft pick after high draft pick at the position.
Alize Mack came to Notre Dame as the #1 tight end in his class and reportedly has impressed every spring and summer to the point that Brian Kelly raved about him being uncoverable last spring. Being uncoverable in practice, however, has produced just two career touchdowns – one of which came in garbage time last year in Miami.
Mack has, however, shown positive signs of improvement since Ian Book has taken over the quarterback position. He’s hauled in six catches in three of the four games that Book started after catching just six passes in the three games Brandon Wimbush started in total. What has been missing though is yards after the catch. Mack and Book have not developed a strong chemistry yet where Book has been able to get Mack the ball in the open field where Mack can make some noise after the catch. Last week Mack caught six passes but averaged just 5.2 yards per reception with a long of 9 yards.
If Mack and Book can continue to build on what they’ve started here, Notre Dame could have another weapon in the passing game which in turn will help open things up for the Irish ground game that stalled this past weekend.