Marquee Monday Places All Eyes on Irish OpenerBy Joanne Norell
The last Friday in August usually feels a little different.
Most other years, Notre Dame football fans will have already made their way into town, or the team would already be en route to its away game destination. The anticipation of the beginning of another season would feel a little more acute.
But not this year. For all intents and purposes, this Friday is just another Wednesday.
For the first time in program history, the No. 9 Irish will open the season on Labor Day Monday, facing Louisville in a primetime ESPN matchup to cap the first full weekend of college football. For the die-hards among us, it will be a cherry on top of a full slate of games. For those with a more Notre Dame-centric focus, the wait is more excruciating than usual.
For their part, Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly and his 10th Irish squad will treat Saturday like Thursday, holding their normal 48-hour practice and releasing the team to rest. Then, the team will be free to enjoy the Saturday slate with two days left before its own kickoff.
But in case you need to tide yourself over while the Irish wait for the clock to strike 8:06 p.m. ET Monday, I’m serving up eight storylines to keep your eye once the Irish — finally — take the field.
The Cardinals won just two games a year ago, but the Irish aren’t overlooking Louisville and first-year head coach Scott Satterfield. The former skipper at Appalachian State, Satterfield led the Mountaineers to at least nine wins in four of six seasons at the helm. He will look to resurrect a Louisville program that won an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship as recently as 2016, the same season quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy.
“This is a winning program,” Kelly said. “This is a program over the past four years that has won eight or more games. They know how to win. They know what winning is about. They had a Heisman Trophy winner in their program.
“This is a program that expects to win in all phases. All of their programs are quite successful. This is a winning environment at Louisville, and they have high expectations. We’re going to be prepared for that.”
Assessing the Schedule
If Notre Dame’s 2018 schedule proved one thing, it’s that crafting a challenging schedule requires plenty of assumptions. The home opener against Michigan certainly lived up to the hype, but few predicted down seasons by Stanford, USC and Florida State, and a road trip to Virginia Tech was much less competitive than it was billed to be.
As such, Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular-season record drew some sneers in the national media. Not that anyone around here paid it that much attention.
Still, the biggest scheduling challenge Notre Dame faced in 2018 came in the final month of the season when the Irish traveled to San Diego (Navy), Evanston, Illinois (Northwestern), New York City (Syracuse) and Los Angeles (USC), and battled the grind of cross-country travel.
Where last year’s slate saw the Irish mostly at home for the season’s first half and mostly away for the second, this season offers more balance in terms of travel. That’s not to say those road trips won’t be challenging. They’ll head to Georgia (Sept. 21), Michigan (Oct. 26) and Stanford (Nov. 30), after all. Georgia and Michigan are preseason top-10 teams, and the Irish haven’t won at Stanford since 2007. A visit from USC (Oct. 12) will always be circled on the calendar, no matter the outlook for the Trojans. And Virginia (Sept. 28) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 2) will provide challenges at home.
The Irish are favored in all but their road games in Athens and Ann Arbor, but expect all of the predictions to evolve as the season finally gets underway.
For the first time in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, there is no quarterback question. Ian Book is your starter, and that was never in doubt — not in spring practice, not in camp and not on the eve of the season opener. Book didn’t get the starting nod until the 2018 season’s fourth game, but was pivotal in leading the Irish to a College Football Playoff berth.
How good was Book? Well, for starters he threw for 2,628 yards with a 68.2 completion percentage. He became the first Irish starter to win eight consecutive games after taking over starting duties since Terry Hanratty in 1966. He was the first collegiate quarterback to win his first five games while completing at least 70 percent of his passes since Russell Wilson did so at Wisconsin in 2011. In that five-game stretch, he was the most accurate quarterback in the country.
That kind of success comes with expectations. Book was named a captain this summer, becoming the first Irish quarterback to earn the honor under Kelly (DeShone Kizer was named a captain for the 2017 season before departing for the NFL). He appears on the preseason watch lists for the Davey O’Brien Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. And while the team strives to return to the Playoff, much of that pressure will fall on Book’s shoulders.
But that’s what he’s here for.
“That’s why you come to Notre Dame, to play in those big games,” Book said. “We’ve got a lot to prove this year and we’re excited.”
“That’s why you come to Notre Dame, to play in those big games. We’ve got a lot to prove this year and we’re excited.” — Ian Book
Steady on the Line
Notre Dame will benefit from continuity on both offensive and defensive lines. The Irish return all but three starters on both lines, but boast significant experience stepping in from down the depth chart.
On offense, Jarrett Patterson will replace Sam Mustipher at center, but Liam Eichenberg (left tackle), Aaron Banks (left guard), Tommy Kraemer (right guard) and Robert Hainsey (right tackle) all bring starting experience in front of quarterback Ian Book.
Defensively, the Irish return two of the nation’s best defensive ends in Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. Both appear on preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, with Okwara returning 38 tackles and 21 quarterback hurries and Kareem boasting 42 tackles in 2018. In between them will be Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who returns after missing all but two games due to injury last season, and Kurt Hinish, who appeared in all 13 games and recorded 13 tackles a year ago.
Behind Okwara is Daelin Hayes, whom Kelly praised for a strong camp and made 31 tackles last season. Adetokunbo Ogundeji will back up Kareem and notched 22 tackles in 2018. Jayson Ademilola returns strong experience behind Tagovailoa-Amosa, having appeared in all 13 games as a freshman, while rookie Jacob Lacey came in as the nation’s No. 13 defensive tackle prospect.
Up in the Air
The Irish will have a couple of questions to answer in the passing game with top receiver Miles Boykin matriculating to the NFL and injuries that will hold tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young out of action early in the season.
The good news? The Irish have plenty of pieces to fill in the gaps. Chase Claypool has emerged as a clear No. 1 receiver, with the skill and physicality to dominate at the position. After a strong 2018, Chris Finke has evolved from walk-on to starting captain, while sophomore Lawrence Keys III has become bigger and stronger in the off-season.
Converted running back Jafar Armstrong is likely to step in at slot receiver, as will Kyren Williams.
“One of the things we’ve done really well is from an offensive perspective, we’ve got some versatility that if we are down a player or two, we have some other talented players that we can fit into a system that’s flexible enough to be able to do that.”
Depth in the Backfield
Cornerback Julian Love may be gone to the NFL’s New York Giants — and his Irish record 39 career pass break-ups with him — but the Irish have plenty of veteran experience in the defensive backfield. Troy Pride Jr. has emerged as a natural successor to Love, battling top receiver Chase Claypool throughout camp, while Shaun Crawford is healthy and brings a variety of tools that make him a formidable threat in the corner.
Meanwhile, captains Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott are known commodities at safety and have turned that position from a weakness to a strength in a few short seasons.
The Irish get younger down the depth chart — sophomores Houston Griffith and TaRiq Bracy at cornerback and freshman Kyle Hamilton at safety — but the ceiling is high for them all.
“I think our depth is outstanding,” Kelly said. “We can play players and feel really confident, keep guys fresh on the back end of the defense. I don’t know that we’ve had that kind of situation in a few years, so it feels pretty good.”
Who’s Your ‘Backer?
The Irish have their hands full replacing NFL Draft picks Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney at the linebacker position, but the pool of those capable of stepping in is deep. Asmar Bilal will get the start at buck, with Drew White slotting in at mike and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah taking over at rover. Bilal is the veteran of the bunch, making 10 starts a season ago, while White and Owusu-Koramoah have six appearances between them.
White is an interesting case, having risen from the scout team to the top of the depth chart. He saw action four games in 2018, but made a splash with six tackles against Navy while stepping in for an injured Tranquill.
Also certain to see playing time are Jordan Genmark Heath and Jack Lamb at buck and Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer in the middle. The outlook for the linebacker corps will become clearer once a game has finally been played, but Kelly is optimistic about the entirety of the group.
“This is a pretty fluid situation,” Kelly said. “That’s why there’s a lot of ands, ors and buts out there. You see a lot of guys. We think they’re all capable. They’ve all done really good things.
“The arrows are up on all of those guys. They’ve all made significant progress and have done the things we’ve wanted them to do. They’ve earned playing time. We’ll see how it goes.”
Kelly expects some key contributions from a handful of freshmen, though Notre Dame’s contingent of returners means just seven rookies appear on the Irish Week One depth chart. Safety Kyle Hamilton has garnered plenty of preseason pub through camp with the media tracking his interceptions in open practices, though punter Jay Bramblett has the best chance to make an early impact as Tyler Newsome’s replacement.
Jacob Lacey will certainly rotate in at nose guard, while Kelly noted running back Kyren Williams, listed for punt-return duty on the depth chart, can also work into the rotation in the passing game.
Each college football season comes with plenty of questions. That’s the nature of the game as student-athletes cycle in and out of a program every year. The 2019 Irish certainly have their own questions to answer, but for now enjoy plenty of continuity and a roster full of experience.
Only time will tell how it all plays out. Irish will just have to be patient until the lights go on Monday night.