Notre Dame season preview: 10-win season in store for Irish?
Gone are seven Notre Dame players selected within the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL draft. That’s one of the largest talent drains as you’ll see in the entire country and it’s a testament to Brian Kelly’s recruiting that they’re still ranked No. 11 in our preseason polls. A quarterback competition looms once again in South Bend, but it’s unlikely that decision is what ultimately decides Notre Dame’s destiny. What will decide it then, you ask? Let’s take a look:
From a grading standpoint, all signs point to the senior Malik Zaire for Notre Dame’s quarterback competition. The offense has run like a well-oiled machine in nearly every game Zaire has been a part of. Notre Dame really can’t go wrong with either though, as Kizer graded out positively as well in 776 snaps a season ago.
With another stud offensive line in the works and Tarean Folston returning at runningback, the only question mark is who will be catching passes for the Irish? They lost 2,152 snaps at the receiver position from a season ago with Torrii Hunter Jr. being the only returning player who saw meaningful time. Hunter will be thrust into one of the starting spots while sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown – who only took 47 snaps a season ago – looks poised to take the other.
Realistically the chances of Notre Dame making it to the playoff this year comes down to the front seven. If they can find a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks without relying solely on the blitz like they did in 2015 then they’ll be a force to contend with. That is a big “if,” though. Senior Isaac Rochell will slide inside more this season where he should be more effective as he simply lacked the burst to win the edge consistently. On the outside though not a single player returns with a positive pass rush grade from a season ago.
Even with a lackluster pass rush, there is reason to believe that this secondary could be the best Notre Dame has had in the Brian Kelly era. Safety Drue Tranquill had graded out positively through the first three games before tearing his ACL while Max Redfield has been solid if unspectacular the past two years. If there is one name to keep an eye out for though it’s senior cornerback Cole Luke. As a sophomore, Luke had one of the top grades in the country, allowing only a 60.5 quarterback rating into his coverage. That number took a step back to 87.7 a season ago, but it’s clear the talent is there if he can put it all together.
Biggest star: LT Mike McGlinchey
You’d be hard pressed to find any offensive lineman — even in the NFL — that can be classified as a “star,” but if every position got equal billing then McGlinchey would be that guy. He has first-round talent though his chances of ending up there will depend on how adeptly he takes to the left tackle position. Ironically, if Malik Zaire wins the starting job, McGlinchey have switched positions away from the blind side, but he’ll still form on of the best double team duos in the country with left guard Quinten Nelson. McGlinchey has the second highest run blocking grade of any returning tackle in the Power-5.
Breakout player to watch: DT Jarron Jones
Two years ago it was Jones, not Sheldon Day, who graded out the highest along the Notre Dame defensive line. Last season a torn MCL cost him the year save for a handful of snaps in the Sugar Bowl. At a hair over 6-5 and 315 pounds, Jones is one of the most physically imposing defensive tackles in all of college football. If he can add counter or two to his prodigious bull rush, Jones should be in for a big year.
The offense will be a dynamic top-10 type unit no matter who starts at quarterback. The defense though will have to see some guys take huge leaps forward to keep pace. The schedule may be a tad easier than it was a season ago with only one team on the schedule currently in the PFF top 25 (Stanford), but they’ll face some legitimate tests early in the season with Texas and Michigan State matchups in Week 1 and 3 respectively. If they can get through those unscathed, expect another 10-win season for the Irish.