Notre Dame lost their top running back, wide receiver, and tight end following the 2018 12-1 season. Those three players accounted for 2,360 all-purpose yards, 111 receptions, and 24 total touchdowns. The cupboard is not bare, however, with replacements Jafar Armstrong, Chase Claypool, and Cole Kmet ready to step in and fill the voids created by their departed teammates.
For their part last season, that trio accounted for 1,363 all-purpose yards, 79 receptions, and 11 touchdowns. They are far from novices and there is ample reason to believe all three are ready for a starring role this season. This isn’t a question of being able to handle a bigger role. All three are upperclassmen, have been in the program for over two seasons, and have played very meaningful minutes. It’s their time.
Of all the skill players on offense they are in the best position to “break out”, to go from role players to stars. But, which ones actually will?
When breaking down the running back position this season, it’s very easy to project some huge numbers for Armstrong in 2019. Figure he’ll get about 15 carries a game at around 6 yards a carry, at least four receptions a game at around 50 yards per contest and next thing you know you’re on the record for an 1,100 yard, 48 catch season and 1,700 total yards, or one of the best running back performances in recent memory. And it could happen! He has the skill set for it, we saw that in the spring game. And he’s got the coaches on his side, as he routinely receives rave reviews from the staff for his work ethic, being described as tireless. Certainly bodes well for his workload this season.
However, he’s never rushed for 100 yards in a game. His two best contests statistically came against Ball State and Navy. He was hampered by injury throughout his first season in the lineup with a knee injury that led to an infection, followed by an ankle issue. And this was in limited work. It’s fair to be skeptical about what a full time role will mean for him health wise.
All that said, opportunity + talent + skill set+ offensive scheme portends very well for Armstrong having a huge season in 2019. Just has to stay on the field.
The number of times Claypoool has been called a physical freak over the last four seasons are too numerous to count. That’s usually followed by some discussion about how he needs to focus, make football a priority, and it could all come together for him. No player on the team has been psychoanalyzed as much as Claypool has over his career.
Claypool’s on field production has followed a pretty standard trajectory over his first three seasons in South Bend, with five catches as a freshman, 29 as a sophomore, and 50 last season. As he moves to the #1 option in 2019, there is every reason to believe he’ll see another big jump in his overall #’s, perhaps into the 70’s and close to 1,000 yards. He’s improved every year, why not this one? Especially with reports that he has been totally focused on football so far this offseason.
Now, is Claypool so much better than Chris Finke and Michael Young that he’ll monopolize the targets from Ian Book? Last year Book spread the ball around pretty evenly amongst his receiving options with the top three all within nine total receptions of each other. For Claypool to break out, he’d have to truly separate himself from his fellow receivers and I’m not sure the gap in talent is that wide, especially when you factor in the eventual insertion of Kevin Austin into the lineup, who despite his uncertain future has looked really good in the offseason.
The most likely outcome here is Claypool looks the best he ever has while not quite having a season worthy of being called a “break out”. The opportunity is unlikely to be there.
Doesn’t it seem like “this is the year Notre Dame really takes advantage of the tight end position” has been going on for about four consecutive seasons now? And it hasn’t happened. Match up nightmares and all that aside, Notre Dame got steady play from Alize Mack during his time on campus, and him not living up to the hype bestowed upon him isn’t the problem of Kmet.
The junior tight end has been the subject of a lot of hype himself though, and that has continued this offseason. He has apparently looked great in practice and is a physical marvel. Yet, his production on the field has mostly been, meh. He has yet to score a touchdown for Notre Dame and the closest he came was a near miss against Navy with Book missing a wide open Kmet up the seam.
It’s tough to put too much on Kmet for his so-so performance last season, given he suffered from a pretty severe high ankle sprain that lingered throughout the year. Playing through an injury like that will limit anyone, and it should be noted he did in fact play through it.
Kmet is the toughest to project because what does a breakout performance look like for him? Last year Mack caught 36 passes, Kmet 15. Kmet would more than double his output should he get to the 36 number, but that’s not exactly a notable number. Could Kmet get to 50? Four touchdowns? What’s the ceiling here, that’s what’s hard to determine. Best guess is he gets to the low 40’s and is by far the best tight end, but doesn’t invoke memories of Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph.