Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: What Made The Irish Go in 2018

Rumor has it coaches such as Nick Saban at Alabama, Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame keep hidden stashes of pixie dust in the left bottom desk drawers of their offices — and then they simply spread it liberally across their football programs, creating their own version of a secret sauce.

If only it were that simple.

In reality, there are hundreds of moving pieces that must fit together in some special way to create the combined 50-1 record those four teams bring into the College Football Playoff semifinals next Saturday in Dallas and Miami Gardens.

For the Irish, they built on a 10-3 campaign in 2017 that ended with a comeback Citrus Bowl win over LSU.

Yet Notre Dame also had to overcome the departure of two valued assistant coaches in defensive coordinator Mike Elko (to Texas A&M) and veteran offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (to the Chicago Bears). Graduation took away NFL Draft first-round picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, as well as draftees Durham Smyth and Equanimeous St. Brown.

So, here are some of the things (an even dozen, one for each victory) that happened in 2018 that most directly impacted a perfect 12-0 regular season for Notre Dame (in no particular order):

  • Don’t underestimate the impact of veteran linebacker Drue Tranquill’s announcement at the 2017 ECHOES postseason awards event that he planned to return for his final season of eligibility. In Tranquill (who was married in the offseason), the Irish have a mature, seasoned, productive and passionate football player who shrugged off multiple injuries in 2018 to stay on the field. He and Te’von Coney made a great tandem in the middle of the defense for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea. I remember Tranquill approaching Lea in the Irish locker room long after the season-opening win against Michigan. They traded notes on the play calls from the game — and it was obvious there was great chemistry between the two. Irish fans saw that play out all year. Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery did not have to come back, either, but all three knew they had a chance to improve themselves and be part of something potentially special in South Bend.
  • Raise your hand if, back in August, you predicted Ian Book would complete 197 passes in 2018 and run for another 250 yards. Credit Kelly for having the foresight to promote Book — even though Brandon Wimbush had led the Irish to a 3-0 record to start the year, including that win over Michigan. Midseason quarterback switches can be dicey, but Book, Kelly and the Irish made it look seamless. And the results speak for themselves.
  • Just as important as Ian Book’s play has been how Brandon Wimbush handled his business. He said all the right things, did all the right things — and when his time came to fill in against Florida State in the home finale with Book banged up, he produced a memorable evening on an emotional night for a big group of Irish players making their final appearance in Notre Dame Stadium.
  • When Mike Elko left for Texas A&M, Irish fans wondered what was next for the Notre Dame defense. The promotion of Clark Lea to the coordinator position provided that answer quickly and with little fanfare. Lea certainly inherited an experienced group. But give him plenty of credit for adding his personal touches and making it all work on the field. Lea’s approach is more introspective and cerebral than Elko’s more outwardly emotional personality — yet, again, give Brian Kelly props for understanding that continuity for that defensive corps could be the icing on the cake. Lea has been a home run.
  • In the same vein, Irish offensive line prospects for 2018 had to be a question given the departure of Hiestand, Nelson and McGlinchey for the NFL. Together they helped produce the best offensive line in college football in 2017. But Kelly realized that, in analyst Jeff Quinn, he had a perfect replacement for Hiestand. That group has arguably been a bit underrated in 2018, in part because of the early injury loss of likely All-American Alex Bars. So Quinn mixed and matched his guys and made it work. Like Lea, Quinn kept the parade moving.
  • Running back Dexter Williams’ career at Notre Dame hasn’t featured a perfect trajectory. Yet, whatever challenges he encountered he did so with a serious bent that paid dividends. Williams missed the first four games of 2018, yet he prepared as if his weekly assignment was 20 carries per game. When he did take the field in week five in a key prime-time assignment against Stanford, he ran 45 yards for a touchdown on his first carry of the season. That’s all his teammates and Irish fans needed to know. Half of his eight games produced 142 or more rushing yards, and he is the emotional leader of Autry Denson’s position group.   
  • When Notre Dame dropped two road games in November 2017 to Miami and Stanford, it might have been easy to simply write them off as tough assignments against very good teams. Kelly didn’t do that. He addressed the issue head-on in the offseason and made sure the Irish program took measures to give his players a better chance to prosper at season’s end. He put success in November as an often-talked-about and hard-to-miss team goal. He rearranged the travel schedule to San Diego (a rare overnight stay Saturday and then a flight home Sunday) and made a serious investment in recovery for his players. The Irish might have had an excuse for playing four of their final five games away from home — and doing it from one coast to the other, with two California appearances in that five-week slate. The final score against an upstart Syracuse team in Yankee Stadium five days before Thanksgiving told Irish fans all they needed to know.
  • Notre Dame coaches knew they had the makings of a better-than-average defensive line in 2018. Yet development of that group into a truly fearsome, game-changing unit would take some work. So credit Clark Lea and line coach Mike Elston for pulling all the right strings. Jerry Tillery’s improvement from one year to the next was marked — and that resulted in some postseason recognition for him, yet this truly represented a team effort. Check the numerical improvement in production by the combination of Tillery, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. In 2017 that trio combined for 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. In 2018 those numbers ballooned to 19.5 and 32, respectively. Each of the three made at least 30 tackles.  
  • It’s no secret that safety play didn’t rank as an Irish highlight a year ago, with no interceptions by that position group for the first time in 53 years. So the insertion of transfer Alohi Gilman (76 tackles), not to forget the contributions of Jalen Elliott (63 tackles, 10 passes defended), proved more than a bit notable (and noticeable). When the Irish trailed at halftime at USC — with a CFP invitation hanging in the balance — Gilman was the player who spoke up in the locker room and delivered a passionate challenge to his teammates.
  • A 12-0 season produces its share of individual recognition — and so cornerback Julian Love, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney and center Sam Mustipher claimed their share. Yet this was absolutely a team effort in 2018. Kelly handed out game balls after each of those victories, and they went to a different individual each Saturday. That’s saying something.
  • This was a team and season short on drama, other than that produced by winning. The chemistry was good, there was a shortage of ego directing the progress — and the players bought into Kelly’s insistence on grit and focus. The players went about their business in workmanlike fashion and never seemed to worry much about who got the credit. They figured out the sort of preparation and work required to win football games and they welcomed contributions from all.
  • Notre Dame generally avoided a laundry list of damaging injuries. The Irish somehow managed to survive the loss of possibly their best offensive lineman (Alex Bars) and Drue Tranquill survived his share of bumps and bruises and a few other players sat out games here or there — but never once was there a suggestion any of that would compromise what happened from Saturday to Saturday.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.