The 2018 Notre Dame football season will officially get underway Friday at 10:20 a.m. as training camp opens at Culver Academies.
The Fighting Irish bounced back in 2017 from a stunningly disappointing four-win campaign in 2016 and the expectations for another step forward hang over the program.
Notre Dame finished 10-3 last season, which culminated in an impressive win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
The Irish will open the 2018 season Sept. 1 in South Bend against Michigan (NBC, 7:30 p.m.).
“There’s a lot of work leading up to the Michigan game,” veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said at the end of the spring practice. “But we know what’s in front of us. We know that we’re not a finished product at this point. But their work ethic has been great. Their attitude’s been great. It’s a close team. They really care for each other, so there are a lot of really good things moving forward.”
Here are five things to watch for within the Notre Dame offense that will significantly impact how the Fighting Irish perform this season. The defense will be analyzed on Thursday.
ANOTHER QUARTERBACK DILEMMA
This will be Kelly’s ninth season in South Bend and only once has he not had a quarterback dilemma on his hands at some point in a season and even that wasn’t of his own doing.
Current Irish quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees handled the starting job without competition during the 2013 season, but that was due to returning starter Everett Golson being academically ineligible.
This season is no different following the sporadic play of primary starter Brandon Wimbush and the more-than-solid performance of his backup Ian Book.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said following the annual Blue-Gold spring game in April. “You know, that’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.
“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us. So it’s 1A and 1B.”
In other words, there is a very real possibility of this season involving yet another quarterback controversy within the program.
COHESION AMONG THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The Notre Dame offensive line was named as the nation’s best last season, but its two primary forces (Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson) have departed for the NFL.
In addition, the Fighting Irish lost offensive line guru Harry Hiestand (ironically, to the NFL, as well), so the unit was in flux during the spring.
“I think you’re going to see those guys cross-training,” Kelly said early in the spring practice of the line. “I think it’s going to be an extremely competitive situation, one that I’m kind of looking forward to because there’s probably four or five different combinations that we could run out there at the offensive line.”
By the end of spring, it appeared that new line coach Jeff Quinn had settled on Liam Eichenberg (left tackle), Alex Bars (left guard), Sam Mustipher (center), Tommy Kraemer (right guard), and Robert Hainsey (right tackle).
“I think there are some more moving pieces there,” Kelly added in referencing the line. “But, man, when you have Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, that’s pretty good right there. And experience with Kraemer and Hainsey, it’s not a worry of mine by any means, but I’ll be involved in a lot of conversations about, you know, who is going to be on the right side, who is going to be on the left side, cross training.”
PLAYING TO POTENTIAL
The Fighting Irish lost four of their top six pass-catchers from last season for varying reasons and eight of the 17 athletes that caught any balls at all. However, Notre Dame has talent in the receiving corps, most notably in wide receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Alize’ Mack, both of whom have shown glimpses of their talent, but not on a consistent basis.
“When he decides that he wants to be great,” second-year Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said this spring of Claypool, “he’s going to be great.”
Claypool was “great” in the Blue-Gold game.
He missed the bowl game due to injury, but came back in the spring game and finished with a team-leading six receptions (two of which were for touchdowns) and over 150 yards gained.
“We’re still counting on him to grow,” Long continued. “Obviously, he’s a great talent but like a few other guys, they have to come on and find out what is important for them. The moment that he decides that, he’s going to be a big-time player.”
One of those “other guys” is Mack.
The senior was fourth on the team with 19 receptions last season, with six of those coming in a spectacular game against Wake Forest. However, he only had two receptions in the final seven games and was suspended for the bowl game.
“I think a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Kelly said at the start of the spring. “He has not been on any lists. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. But he knows he’s got to go prove it now. He’s got to be consistent as a ball catcher. He’s got to be great in line as well as detached.”
Just 3️⃣1️⃣ days until @NDFootball kicks off the season vs. Michigan!
3️⃣1️⃣… that sounds familiar! The last time these ✌️squared off, the Irish won 31-0.#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/EmmQECQkUU
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) August 1, 2018
Josh Adams took his 1,430 yards rushing and bolted for the NFL, which left a seismic hole in the Fighting Irish ground game.
Wimbush is a dangerous threat to run, but Notre Dame will certainly need senior Dexter Williams and redshirt sophomore Tony Jones Jr. to not only be healthy, which they weren’t during large stretches last season but productive, as well.
“So Dexter, I think we all know last year was much more about staying healthy,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t really get into a great continuity with him because of injuries. It put him back in terms of his preparation.”
With Jones, he too was hampered, but Kelly believes that the 2018 version of Jones Jr. will be the best yet.
“There is no guy in front of him in a workhorse in Josh Adams, so he sees that,” Kelly said. “That’s a huge motivator. I think his strength in work volume is better than it was last year. That’s going to prove itself to be probably equally as important because he’s going to stay healthy. He wasn’t healthy most of the season as well. He’s stronger, he’s got a coat of armor on him, and his work volume is better. And finally we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within this offense.”
CROSS-TRAINERS CAN HELP
One of the more intriguing aspects of the offense this spring was the implementation of quarterback Avery Davis into a receiving role and wide receiver Jafar Armstrong into a running role.
It was only spring football, but both showed athleticism to create opportunities for themselves.
“I’m not sure Avery’s going to play running back,” Kelly explained of the dual role. “He’s a quarterback, but we’ll see what other things he can do for us. Jafar is more towards that Theo Riddick, if you will, where Theo was a wide receiver but took reps for us at the running back. I think I’d like to kind of move in that same direction. He’s going to be a guy that I think can touch the ball coming out of the backfield, but also can give us some work at the running back position. Theo, CJ Prosise, we kind of see him in a similar vein.”
Riddick and Prosise both utilized their expanded roles and parlayed those skills into NFL careers, so that has to be enticing to both Davis and Armstrong.
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