Next up in the line of Independent previews is my favorite team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Most pundits have the Golden Domers, fresh off a 4-8 season, to be the best team out of the group of Independents. Well, as a fan, I certainly hope so, since it’s not too impressive of a list. It was certainly a disappointing season, but when you consider the Irish went 1-7 in one possession games, it could’ve easily been a different season. This year, it’s a matter of adjustments.
Back is head coach Brian Kelly, who was placed on the hot seat for most of the second part of the season and the duration of the offseason. Now, I do not think his job is in as much jeopardy as people like to say it is. He’s just beginning a new, expensive contract extension, and right, wrong or indifferent, ND will not fire another coach early in a contract after they just finished paying Charlie Weis recently. With a totally new cast of coordinators, this could be the shot of energy the program needed.
Gone is quarterback DeShone Kizer, and in steps Brandon Wimbush (below, two seasons ago against UMass). Wimbush is more of a natural dual-threat quarterback, but he still has an exceptional arm. While he is inexperienced, he’s had the luxury of learning the past couple of years, and he’s stepping into a situation where he has A LOT of talent around him. Plus, the addition of offensive coordinator Chip Long should help speed #7’s development up.
Most of the Irish o-line is returning, which is always the best thing you can give a young college quarterback in my opinion. They start 4 seniors/graduate students across the board, including captain Mike McGlinchey.
He still has Equanimeous St. Brown and Josh Adams, the top receiver and rusher from last year’s team. St. Brown averaged close to 17 yards per catch, while displaying consistent hands. Adams
I’m also looking at increased roles for Kevin Stepherson (pls learn how to catch), Dexter Williams (pls learn how to consistently hit the hole hard), and CJ Sanders (pls keep doing what you’re doing). Throw in Alize Jones, who’s returning from academic ineligibility, and top recruit Durham Smythe, and you’ve got yourself a quality offense.
The question is going to inevitably come back to the defensive side of the football. This was as glaring a weakness as a football team could possibly have last season, and it resulted in the firing of Brian VanGorder a quarter of the way through the season. I mean, they lost games that they put up 47, 35 and 31 points last year, for Christ’s sake.
Mike Elko comes to South Bend from Wake Forest, where he oversaw a defensive unit that has been in the top-30 for the last two seasons.
The linebacking corps is the best and most experienced part of the defense. They’re lead by Nyles Morgan (cover photo), who has really come into his own after not seeing much action in his first few years, and converted safety Drue Tranquill, who is beginning his 239th season for the Irish. Both are exceptional tacklers and good athletes, but I’m interested to see how quickly Tranquill adjusts to his new role.
Most of the defensive line from last year graduated, leaving the Irish with a questionable pass rush to go along with their questionable secondary. Talk about rolling the dice! Elko has historically been good at getting the most out of his players, and generally speaking, there’s a lot of potential among this group.
I’ll tell you right now – they will lose to USC. They will lose to Miami. Other than that? I think they have a fighting chance in every game, and I think they do get back to a bowl. I don’t think this is their year to make the playoffs, but supposing the young defensive unit takes a step forward this year, we could be having a different conversation next summer. I’ll cross my fingers and predict the Irish going 7-5.
Cover Photo via The Sports Bank.
GIF via HERO Sports