University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly will put his football team through its preseason paces the rest of this month.
Meanwhile, Irish fans will be able to read, watch and listen to all manner of well-informed analyses of prospects for Kelly’s 2018 Irish football program before Sept. 1 when 11th-ranked (coaches poll) Notre Dame plays host to 14th-rated Michigan in prime time at Notre Dame Stadium.
What’s at stake? Notre Dame finished 10-3 in 2017 — so this is a chance for consecutive 10-plus-win seasons, something the Irish have not accomplished since 1992 (10-1-1) and 1993 (11-1).
So, to make it easier for Notre Dame fans, here’s a compendium of a dozen likely subjects and headlines about the coming Irish season:
- Quarterbacks: When is the quarterback position not a front-page topic for Irish followers? Seemingly never.
A year ago, Notre Dame coaches sought to calm the early hype for then-redshirt junior Brandon Wimbush, who was heir-apparent to DeShone Kizer (now an Aaron Rodgers backup in Green Bay) even with his limited in-game experiences. And give Wimbush full credit for doing his part to stake the Irish to an 8-1 start and a spot in the first two College Football Playoff final-four rankings. All that happened in the initial season for Wimbush as the starter while working in tandem with first-year Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long and rookie quarterbacks coach Tom Rees.
The second year in the current Irish system for those individuals is bound to pay some sort of dividends. Kelly likes the way Wimbush has worked to address both his strengths and weaknesses coming into 2018. He also has suggested Wimbush can be the best quarterback in the country.
Adds Kelly, “He (Wimbush) clearly has a confidence about him that he lacked at times last year.”
Meanwhile, Ian Book (he stole the quarterback headlines in Notre Dame’s Citrus Bowl win over LSU) and highly touted freshman Phil Jurkovec should ensure Wimbush doesn’t “sleepwalk” through the preseason and into the coming year (as Kelly suggested can’t happen).
- Clark Lea takes over the defense. A big part of the Irish makeover a year ago came under the guidance of first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko. With Elko now in the same role at Texas A&M, that job belongs to Lea, who lists Elko as a mentor and figures to bring some measure of continuity to Notre Dame’s approach.
Lea may be a bit more cerebral and a bit less rah-rah, but he has built on the Xs and Os installed a year ago by Elko. That alone should make it easier for Notre Dame players to take the next step.
“He (Lea) has been extremely consistent with the standards he’s set on defense and you’re going to have to fit into that consistency,” says Kelly.
- Lots of experience on defense. Lea and his defensive staff benefit from a veteran, experienced crew (eight returning regulars) on that side of the football for 2018. That provides some sort of head start when it comes to preparing for the fall.
Linebackers Te’von Coney (team-high 116 tackles and a team-leading 13 tackles for loss in 2017; 16 career starts) and Drue Tranquill (85 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 29 starts), cornerback Julian Love (68 tackles, three interceptions, 21 starts) and lineman Jerry Tillery (56 tackles, 9 TFL, 27 starts) champion the list of returnees that includes nine of the top 11 tacklers from the 2017 season. Few teams in the country can say that.
- Tight ends. No program in the country boasts a better recent tradition of top-quality tight ends (Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Durham Smythe — all drafted from 2006 on).
That crew in 2018 includes senior Alizé Mack (Notre Dame’s second-leading returning pass-catcher for 2018 with 19 for 359 yards and a TD a year ago), senior Nic Weishar (9 for 52 yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore (and Irish baseball pitcher) Cole Kmet (2 for 14).
- Jeff Quinn and the offensive line. It might be daunting to take over a position group that was honored as the best in the nation (the 2017 Joe Moore Award went to the Irish offensive line) and saw two NFL first-round draft picks (Quenton Nelson to Indianapolis and Mike McGlinchey to San Francisco) depart. With veteran line coach Harry Hiestand now with the Chicago Bears, Quinn takes over after many years on Kelly’s various staffs and experience as a head coach at the University of Buffalo.
Quinn has been in South Bend the last three years as an analyst, so he knows the Notre Dame personnel. His background with Kelly, with offensive line play (and numerous years as an offensive coordinator) and with the current Irish made him an easy fit into the current staff.
It may be unfair to expect the same level of run-game production as in 2017 with Nelson, McGlinchey and ultra-productive running back Josh Adams all gone, but don’t tell that to Quinn or 2018 Irish captains Sam Mustipher (senior center) and Alex Bars (senior guard).
- Kicking game. Their names may not show up on All-America lists, but not many teams in the country boast both a punter and placekicker with the numbers produced by senior punter Tyler Newsome (172 career punts for 43.8-yard average) and senior placekicker Justin Yoon (42 career field goals, 275 career points). Both players have a chance to finish their Irish careers as the best in Notre Dame history from a statistical standpoint.
- Matt Balis. Notre Dame’s director of football performance (the code name for strength and conditioning) was a big hit a year ago in his first season in South Bend. The Irish responded well to his direction and that presumably played a major role in Notre Dame’s 10-3 turnaround season.
So, what will Balis do for an encore? Can the Irish continue to progress in that area? Those answers will require some time to emerge.
- November. The Irish were on top of the world after the first weekend in November last fall when they were 8-1 and seriously into the CFP conversations.
Then came a 41-8 loss at seventh-rated Miami and an 18-point defeat at 20th-ranked Stanford in which the Cardinal came from behind with 21 fourth-period points. Notre Dame outpointed LSU in the Citrus Bowl with a couple of unlikely heroes — backup quarterback Book and receiver Miles Boykin — making the game-winning play.
Kelly and Balis presumably had plenty of conversations about why the Irish weren’t quite the same team late in 2017 as they were in September and October. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect Notre Dame to consistently look the way it did that late October night in a dominant 35-point home win over 11th-rated USC, but it’s certainly a worthy goal.
- Consistency (and more). Notre Dame under Kelly won 10 games in 2015 and 10 more in 2017. The Irish made all kinds of changes a year ago after a 4-8 campaign in 2016, and Notre Dame fans will be eager to see how well their team can build and even expand on those updates, even with three assistant coaches in first-time roles in 2018.
- Leaders. College football programs no longer simply assume that their best senior players automatically will be productive leaders and captains. They work hard in multiple ways to build those skills over time.
So, with veterans like McGlinchey (he did it in a vocal manner, often as the face of the Irish program) and Nelson (he did it in a quieter way, preferring to simply speak on the football field) gone, can Mustipher, Bars, Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill combine with their teammates to create the chemistry required to navigate the 2018 schedule?
- Freshmen. The new NCAA rule on red-shirting means every freshman can play as many as four games at any point in the season and still preserve the year of eligibility. That likely means more and lengthier auditions for 2018 first-year players — even for some that in previous years might not have been used at all in their first seasons.
“I told every one of them, ‘Get ready to play this fall.’ We’ll see how that plays out,” says Kelly.
- Schedule. The Irish play five teams in the 2018 preseason top 25 — No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Michigan, No. 15 USC, No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 19 Florida State. Eight of 12 opponents played in bowl games a year ago (and four won those events).
Four teams finished in the final 2017 Associated Press poll (No. 12 USC, No. 17 Northwestern, No. 20 Stanford and No. 24 Virginia Tech) — and five teams won at least eight games.
Those dozen 2018 foes combined for an 85-69 record (.551, ranking 45th among FBS teams) in 2017. Notre Dame plays away from home against three opponents coming off bowl-game victories (Wake Forest, Navy and Northwestern).
The Irish play four September home games, a first for a Notre Dame football team. They’ll also play four of their final five regular-season assignments away from Notre Dame Stadium, something Notre Dame did as recently as 2015 when it finished 10-3.
“I want to give you the definitive about this team: They love to compete, they enjoy being around each other and they relish the opportunity for the challenge that’s in front of them because we know it’s a great challenge, but one that they are looking for,” says Kelly.
If analytics qualify as de rigueur, check out Phil Steele’s college football yearbook which annually provides more preseason numerical analyses than all the rest of the preseason magazines put together.
Steele suggests that Notre Dame coming into the 2018 campaign (just for example) ranks first on his list of “surprise teams” (with Irish opponents Michigan fourth, Stanford fifth, USC sixth and Florida State seventh), eighth in offensive line unit rankings, eighth in the overall power poll, 12th among freshman recruiting classes, 13th among linebacker unit ratings, 16th on his toughest schedule list and 17th for defensive back unit rankings. Steele tabs defensive back Julian Love and Bars as third-team All-Americans, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and Coney as fourth-team selections.
Kelly, his staff and 2018 roster have plenty to occupy the hours between now and when the Wolverines head to town in less than two weeks.
In the meantime, Irish fans can anticipate the storylines to come.
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 editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.
Tickets for the 2018 Notre Dame football season can be purchased at UND.com/BuyTickets or fans can call 833-ND-IRISH.