With spring football wrapping down this week and concluding with the Blue & Gold game on Saturday, we’ve learned a little about just where the Irish currently stand in their quest to return to the playoffs. From what we know now, there are some players that Notre Dame is going to need to take some big steps forward in order to make another playoff run.
Here’s six players who Notre Dame really needs to step forward still much like we saw Jalen Elliott emerge in 2018. Remember, a year ago everyone was writing Elliott off completely. Fast forward a year and we’re all talking about Notre Dame hasn’t had a safety duo like they do now in year.
Note, I kept this list limited to players who have either:
- Started previously but need to improve
- Played in some capacity previously and shown some areas of concerns
For those reasons I left off players like Jeremiah Owusu-Khoramoah who is probably going to start but has not really played before. Same with a guy like Avery Davis, the converted quarterback then converted running back/receiver who looks like he might in line to start at slot corner since he’s never played defense. We’ll profile those players later this week.
Notre Dame needs every linebacker to step up in 2019 but with two new starters in the group, we knew that could be the case. I have listed Bilal here because Notre Dame needs him to play like the best linebacker on the team at a position (MIKE) designed to make plays.
Bilal was Notre Dame’e starting ROVER in 2018 but was just okay playing in the shadows of Drue Tranquill and Tevon Coney. This spring he moved from ROVER all the way over to MIKE. As a result, there are concerns on how he will hold up against power teams given that he gives up a lot of size to Coney.
It will be interesting to watch Bilal play at MIKE on Saturday in the Blue & Gold Game after he played at ROVER the last two years. How well he holds down the position will go a long way in determining how well the linebacker corps holds up as a unit.
Jonathan Doerer hasn’t started as a placekicker for Notre Dame before but he has been in and out of the lineup as a kick-off specialist the last couple years. Problem is, he’s been out of the lineup at times because he had trouble keeping the ball in bounds. Then he missed the first PAT of his career while filling in for an injured Justin Yoon against Navy last fall.
News out of spring football has not been all that encouraging when it comes to the place kicking department either. After a program all-time great in Justin Yoon there was always going to some sort of fall off, but Notre Dame can’t have that fall off be a cliff if they want to have any chance at returning to the playoffs.
Hopefully Notre Dame gets Doerer a few attempts in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend in some pressure situations and Do reserer ponds. Either way, look for incoming freshman, preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard to challenge Doerer when he arrives on campus.
Notre Dame opened up the spring by moving Griffith to the boundary to replace Julian Love. The first few practices delivered some strong reviews for the move. Since then, there’s been mixed reports on Griffith’s move back to corner. He’s reportedly struggled at times readjusting after moving to safety last year.
Notre Dame needs Griffith to lock down the boundary because Donte Vaughn is coming off an injury and Tariq Bracy doesn’t quite have the size to play the boundary right now leaving him much more suited for the field corner position as Troy Pride’s heir apparent.
If Griffith isn’t able to continue to improve and lock down the boundary position, the position could be up for grabs in fall camp.
The wide receivers have been the talk of the spring – specifically the sophomore class of Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins, and Micah Jones. Young, however, has been just as impressive and appears to have himself firmly entrenched in the starting lineup opposite Chase Claypool.
Young flashed a little last year, but now he is going to be counted on to be a starting receiver this fall. He has reportedly had a very strong spring and could be one of Notre Dame’s best yards after the catch receivers in years if he puts it all together.
With Chase Claypool playing the boundary receiver position, Cole Kmet at tight end, and Chris Finke in the slot; Young doesn’t need to catch 50 passes this year to have a successful year. He needs to be be able to work with the space all of those other playmakers create for a couple big plays a game though.
This one goes without saying, but for the Notre Dame offense to be as potent as it could be, they need Cole Kmet not to just step up, but to be a star caliber player. Notre Dame has not had consistent star level production at the tight end position in years. Alize Mack flashed but never displayed any sort of consistency.
If Kmet starts to remind people more of Tyler Eifert than Mack this fall, the Notre Dame offense will be tough to slow down by all of the defenses on the schedule – Georgia included. If Kmet has a season similar to that of Mack last year on the other hand, the Notre Dame offense likely won’t reach it’s potential this year.
There has been plenty of buzz about Kmet all spring long so the signs are there that he will step forward with a monster season. Kmet has even ditched baseball – for now – to focus solely on football. Time will tell.
Last year we knew there was going to be a drop-off at the offensive line because of all the talent that was lost. This year, we know that there should be improvement up front. Notre Dame returns four starters this fall, but the one they need to take the biggest step forward is their starting left tackle.
Eichenberg had an okay first year in the starting lineup, but he was just scratching the surface of his potential. Notre Dame needs Tommy Kraemer to take a step forward as well, but left tackle is such a critical position that if Eichenberg takes a big step forward it will have a much bigger impact than Kraemer improving as well.
That said, having Kraemer, who has struggled at times, improve would also be a huge boost.
Early reports have been that Eichenberg is looking better this spring, but he’s reportedly not been lining up against Julian Okwara all that often. Hopefully on Saturday we see some snaps where the two square off.
If these six players were all to improve in the way that Elliott did in 2018, Notre Dame will be one heck a potent team. Expecting that much improvement from one player let alone six though is unrealistic. If they all have anywhere close a leap like Elliott’s though this team will be in great shape.