The last time Notre Dame finished in the top 10 offensively according to S&P+ was in 2015. That team used an efficient and mobile quarterback, a strong offensive line, dynamic running backs, and a big play receiver. That unit finished 6th overall according to S&P–2nd rushing and 11th passing.
The 2018 offense was no where near as efficient. They finished 33rd overall, 72nd rushing, 23rd passing. Those numbers are a little depressed due to the four Brandon Wimbush starts that weren’t as efficient as those including Ian Book, but over the course of Book’s nine starts, Notre Dame wasn’t a top 20 offense, let alone top 10.
After posting a top 20 offense in 2017 (19), there was an expected drop off from the offensive unit because of the heavy personnel losses of two first round offensive linemen, their top running back, two top receivers, and the starting tight end. Those losses were mitigated by the defense rising from the 15th defense to 10th in 2018. Could we see a similar response from the offense in 2019 to mitigate the losses incurred from the defense? I think we can.
1. The Offensive Line Moves From A Weakness To A Strength
If we knew Notre Dame was going to field the 106th best offensive line in 2018, per Football Outsiders, we’d be predicting an 8-4, 7-5 type season, at best. 12-0 would have been laughable, an impossibility. And yet, that was the reality for the Notre Dame football team in 2018, and they forged ahead with an undefeated season, with an offensive line that was largely in transition and at times pretty poor. It seems weird to refer to them as a weakness when they had some stellar games–Stanford and Florida State come to mind–but 106th is 106th. That’s poor performance.
So far this spring, the returns on the offensive line have been very promising. Tackles Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg have looked very good dealing with defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, Tommy Kraemer looks the best he has in his career, Aaron Banks is building off of the second half of the regular season, and new starter Jarrett Patterson has cemented his place at center. Everything is pointing up and after going through the trials last season, they’ve got a ton of playing experience in their back pocket, and an entire offseason to develop a continuity.
Any time you’re building the offense from the standpoint of the line being the strength of the unit, you’re set up to be very good.
2. Quality And Experience At Quarterback
In his first extended time as the starting quarterback, Ian Book finished 17th in passing efficiency. This is a good thing. It’s important to point that out, because at this time last season he was the backup quarterback, and the big concern now is whether he is a championship level quarterback. And he has some work to do there obviously, but his baseline for his performance is really high even if he’s the same guy. But, there are reasons to believe he’s making positive changes.
He has reportedly been more willing to take deep shots during team periods and scrimmages in the spring, and has thus improved his accuracy on those types of throws. It helps him that those types of throws are being emphasized more in the offense this spring, largely because of the personnel, and he also feels the freedom to expand his game. It also helps him that his offensive line is giving him more time to look down field, mitigating his struggles with pressure.
He can be the perfect blend of accurate, explosive, mobile, and experienced to exploit the many weapons that are emerging on the team.
3. Cole Kmet Is Surging
It appears Kmet is becoming the player the coaches felt he could become last season. This is an aspect of the team that the 2015 didn’t have. The tight ends just weren’t a heavy part of the attack. Kmet is an enormous player who can go up over anyone, has a huge catch radius, and is athletic enough to get up the seam and attract defenders.
Chip Long called him a once in a lifetime player earlier in the spring and I’d say that is a point in favor of him having a very big season in 2019.
4. The 2018 Receivers Have Arrived
This factor, along with the offensive line, really gives the team a chance to be explosive and effective in 2019. The 2015 team was 3rd in explosiveness. No surprise with CJ Prosise, Josh Adams, and Will Fuller on the team. Last year they were 37th, largely due to Dexter Williams who is preparing for the NFL Draft.
In addition to Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, and Michael Young all having strong springs, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Lawrence Keys have all emerged as players who need to get onto the field in 2019. The takeaway with the group is all of the ways they can burn defenses. Claypool is a big receiver who can muscle anyone, Kevin Austin is someone with a similar skill set. Both of them are also very explosive players who can get behind defenders for big plays. Chris Finke and Lawrence Keys are masters at finding openings, getting away from defenders, and hurting teams after the catch. Keys is especially dangerous with the ball in his hands. Lenzy is the burner who can shred a defense at any given time.
All six of these players have been consistently good in the spring and they can bring the explosiveness Notre Dame is losing in Williams and can do it on a regular basis.
5. The Running Backs Compliment The Rest Of The Offense
The undisputed strength of Ian Book’s game is his short game accuracy. He’s working on being a better downfield passer, but we know he can hit throws short. Four of Notre Dame’s top five backs–Jafar Armstrong, Tony Jones Jr, Jahmir Smith, and Kyren Williams–are all excellent catchers out of the back field. They are unproven as runners in terms of being every down backs, but we know they can catch it.
The other positive is they will benefit from the strengths of the rest of the offense. The line is very good, the receivers are very good, the quarterback is very good. Even if they aren’t traditional every down backs, the defense has to be geared to stop the rest of Notre Dame’s weapons, which will open things up for the runners, and they have the offensive line to take advantage of that.
We usually think in terms of the run setting up the pass, but it’s likely, given the way the offense is set up this season, that the opposite will be true. That said, we know Chip Long likes to run the ball, he’s proven that over the course of his two seasons as the play caller, but that will likely manifest itself much differently in 2019.