There is a tendency to assume following a 12-1 season that everything went right. You need injury breaks, breaks in games, just good luck in general. At least when it came to the offense, though, it was anything but smooth sailing.
Notre Dame’s offensive MVP, Ian Book, didn’t start till week 4. Their most explosive weapon, Dexter Williams, didn’t play in any games till week 5, and in that same week they lost their best offensive lineman for the season to injury. Platoon running back Jafar Armstrong missed multiple weeks with knee and ankle issues, backup tight end Cole Kmet dealt with a severe high ankle sprain for the majority of the season, and in the middle of all that Ian Book reportedly played the final three weeks with cracked ribs and damaged kidney’s to the point where he was spitting blood.
Obviously, there is going to be attrition like this in any football season, nature of the sport. But, when you consider Notre Dame prepared for the season without the quarterback and running back battery that changed their fortunes, it leaves one to wonder what it could mean for the offense to be intact the entire offseason.
Last Season’s Hectic Start
The focus of the Notre Dame offensive staff last season was to find a way to beat Michigan in the opener. They knew Dexter Williams was not going to be available and that their starting running back had never played in college football game, and had become a running back a few months prior. This wasn’t about building the best offense for the season, it was about finding a way to win a game. And wouldn’t you know, it worked. They got their performance out of Brandon Wimbush and Jafar Armstrong, who accounted for every touchdown in the game, and they sent Michigan home with an L.
But, what we all saw the following two weeks against Ball St and Vanderbilt was a collective “now what?” from the offense. The performances were inconsistent and was not going to be sustainable over the course of the season. The move was made to Book in week four, Williams entered the lineup the week after, and things exploded from there. That, however, is not the way you’d want to build an offense on a year to year basis.
Ian Book’s Offense
While it feels like Ian Book has been in charge of the offense for a while, this is the first offseason where he entered as the clear starter, prepared–physically and mentally–to be the starter, and the offense was crafted to fit his game. As good as the coaches are, it’s one thing to fit an offense around a player on a week to week basis. It’s quite another to have months and months to mold it around a quarterback, his skill set, and the skill sets of the players around him.
A lot of people are bullish on what Ian Book can be in 2019, Pete Sampson of The Athletic being one of them, and are predicting very big things for the offense as a whole. As in, best offense of the Kelly era type stuff. If that does indeed come to fruition, the continuity of the offense, not just in terms of the personnel, but also the staff, should not be undersold.
Reportedly, Book has embraced his role as the leader of the offense–captain or not–has rebuilt his body to withstand the rigors of the season, and has improved from an arm strength standpoint. It’s one thing to prepare to be the starter in the event the actual starter goes down, and clearly Book did a good job of that. It’s another thing to know it’s your offense and what it takes physically to do the job.
The Surrounding Personnel
The offense is losing key players such as Williams, Miles Boykin, and Alize Mack, but none of their replacements is what you’d call “new”. Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. played a lot last season and have played with Book. All three starters at receiver and also the top two tight ends have seen extensive action. The are weapons aplenty.
The question is whether Notre Dame can get the most of the talent available to them. The template of what the offense wants to be is what we saw against Wake Forest last season, Ian Book’s first start. He spread the ball around to lots of different receivers, utilized the backs out of the back field, the tight ends, it was all working. Of course, Wake Forest was a terrible defensive team and we didn’t see that type of offensive output the rest of the season. The key of course is getting the offense to the point where that’s the standard on most weeks, not only against the worst teams.
As previously stated, the weapons are there. The starting receiver trio can get open against anyone, Kmet is an enormous athlete with the pedigree to boot, and Jafar Armstrong is a dream player in an offense with Ian Book running it. The question is will Book have the understanding to get the ball accurately to the right player, play after play? And again, that’s where the continuity comes in, an entire offseason getting ready to answer that question. Notre Dame can’t be anything they want to be without a leap from Book, not with the defense likely stepping back some this year, luckily everything is in place to ensure that happens. Now, all that’s left is to do it.