Geyer: Offensive questions loom, but Irish have pieces to succeed
Ellen Geyer | Monday, September 2, 2019
Despite the return of Ian Book, there are undoubtedly extreme voids in the Notre Dame offense at the start of the 2019 season. With the dawn of a new season, the Irish will need guys who were predominantly role players in the past to take on extreme responsibility, mainly in three positions — wide receiver, running back and tight end. The question marks in these spots were only aggravated by the laundry list of preseason injuries Notre Dame sustained, particularly to juniors tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Mike Young, both of whom were sidelined with collarbone breaks.
The good news? Notre Dame has every opportunity to start the season off on the right foot.
Think about the way this season begins in comparison to last. In September of 2018, Notre Dame hosted Michigan in a night game that was the site of College Gameday. This year, the Irish will visit the Louisville Cardinals on a Monday, marking just the second time the programs have ever played and the first time Notre Dame’s had a game on Labor Day — a game that frankly seems to fall after the majority of the weekend’s college football excitement. Yeah, I’d say this season-opener’s a little bit less of a pressure cooker.
In 2019 there’s no quarterback controversy. There haven’t been any major changes to the coaching staff. The Irish won’t see a ranked opponent until week four.
And it’s not even as though Notre Dame is opening its season with a trap game or two — Louisville and New Mexico are no Virginia Tech and USC.
That’s not to say that the Irish won’t need to focus and play for four quarters, but if all goes according to plan it should be relatively smooth sailing.
But the first two games of the Notre Dame schedule afford Brian Kelly and his guys the opportunity to learn how to play together in spite of the six losses they sustained to the 2019 NFL draft.
It’s no secret that Miles Boykin was Book’s favorite target last season, and his height and speed paired with Book’s accuracy in a deadly combination. This season, senior receiver Chase Claypool will need to learn to step into that role. He has the size — but does he have the hands?
To me, it all comes down to what Claypool did during the offseason. In 2018, Boykin was simply better. Utilizing his more reliable target, Book didn’t leave much up to fate, identifying the seams and threading the needle to Boykin on a regular basis. Claypool had flashes of brilliance, but generally fell by the wayside behind his older counterpart. This season, he needs to step up according to the example that Boykin left behind. Despite his speed, graduate student Chris Finke can’t be that guy — he’s just too small. But if Claypool has improved his catching abilities during the offseason, he could prove a dangerous option downfield.
Another faithful part of Notre Dame’s offense last year came on the ground, despite the absence of a dual-threat quarterback. Even though Book can’t run as well as Brandon Wimbush, he had a line that gave him time to make things happen from the pocket. And he didn’t need to run — he had Dexter Williams.
After missing the first four games with a suspension, Williams entered week five and left no uncertainty that his speed would be one of the defining factors in the Irish offense. Without him this year, the Notre Dame run game faces a real deficiency.
On the bright side, junior running back Jafar Armstrong had the opportunity to make himself seen last year in William’s stead. With a strong start against Michigan, the then-sophomore seemed poised for a breakout season, but his inability to stay healthy proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Another year at the collegiate level under his belt, Armstrong should be able to bring last season’s flashes of brilliance to fruition this year, but like Claypool, it depends how he separated himself during the offseason.
The final hole in Book’s offense comes at the tight end position — a place of sneaky productivity during Notre Dame’s 2018 title campaign. Alizé Mack was generally reliable, despite a lack of creativity in his routes. Though it was a loss, it didn’t seem insurmountable for the Irish, particularly with the way Kmet seemed to be performing throughout training camp after recovering from his baseball injury. But with Kmet’s absence to injury, Notre Dame finds itself tasked with filling an even bigger hole as it turns to junior Brock Wright, who, despite playing in 12 games last year, had just two receptions for 12 yards. Despite experience on the field, Wright is not accustomed to taking the number of reps that will be asked of him come Monday night, suggesting that perhaps Book won’t use crafty tight end routes these first few games in the way he did last year.
There’s no shortage of questions floating around Notre Dame’s offense headed into week one, but the Irish boast a level of senior leadership and experience that trends towards a positive outcome Monday night. As for how things will shake out at their next road game after Louisville? Ask me in three weeks.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.