The Fighting Irish rank No. 20 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Very little went right for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly last season. The Fighting Irish went from being a preseason top-10 team with College Football Playoff aspirations to finishing 4-8. To be fair, only one of the losses was by more than eight points, but that’s little consolation to frustrated Notre Dame fans. Kelly wasn’t pleased either, as he brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators as part of a coaching staff overhaul. The Irish have plenty of experience returning, but not at quarterback and the defense as a whole will have to come together and perform better if Notre Dame is to turn things around. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush is a breakout candidate for 2017.
Previewing Notre Dame Football’s Offense for 2017
DeShone Kizer is gone, but sophomore Brandon Wimbush has all the physical tools and the same level of maturity his predecessor brought to the quarterback position, if not the experience.
Four starters return along the offensive line, including left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson. Both are expected to be among the first players at their positions off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft. Sam Mustipher should be a more consistent center this season after his first year as a starter in ’16.
The Irish are loaded at running back, led by junior Josh Adams, who has rushed for 1,768 yards, 11 touchdowns and a 6.4-yard average in his first two years in the program. When healthy — he suffered a hamstring pull in the 2016 preseason and wasn’t up to par until November — he’s a breakaway threat.
Experience at the wide receiver/tight end positions remains mostly sparse, but the talent is abundant. Equanimeous St. Brown leads the pack after a breakthrough sophomore season (58 catches, 961 yards, nine TDs). Sophomore wideout Chase Claypool, who flashed his athleticism on coverage teams, and tight end Alizé Jones, who missed the 2016 season to tend to academics, are exciting athletes with size, like St. Brown.
Previewing Notre Dame Football’s Defense for 2017
The Irish boast strong, deep linebacker and cornerback corps, but the defensive line is a real concern. The safeties are talented but young.
Among the 11 returning defensive linemen, none recorded a sack in ’16, and they combined for just 5.5 tackles for a loss. Ends Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes (no relation) offer the most promise. Veteran interior lineman Jerry Tillery has length and experience, but a skimpy stat sheet.
There’s ample talent at linebacker, where senior Nyles Morgan — who paced the team in tackles (94) and sacks (four) — returns at the Mike. Senior Buck linebacker Greer Martini has length, athleticism and instincts and forms a one-two punch with Te’von Coney. Drue Tranquill moves from strong safety to the Rover (outside backer) spot and teams with promising Asmar Bilal.
The Irish are loaded at cornerback with Nick Watkins coming off an injury-filled ’16 and Julian Love, who emerged as a standout true freshman. The speediest of the group is cornerback-nickel Shaun Crawford, who missed all of ’15 with an ACL injury and then tore his Achilles last September.
The move of Tranquill up front leaves the safety positions without experience. Junior Nick Coleman, a converted cornerback, and sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will battle for minutes.
Previewing Notre Dame Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome put up big numbers in 2015-16. Yoon is 28-of-34 on field goals, and Newsome posted 44.5- and 43.5-yard averages, respectively, the last two seasons. C.J. Sanders averaged 12.5 yards on punt returns last year and had a 25.0-yard average on kick returns, including two touchdowns.
Everything was reevaluated after a 4–8 season, including the coaching staff, which features six new names and three new coordinators, as well as a new strength and conditioning coach.
The offense looks potent, even with the loss of Kizer, and the addition of 34-year-old coordinator Chip Long should provide a supplement to a play menu that needed some diversification.
The key is up front on a defense that is short of proven playmakers from end to end. The back seven looks to be a relative strength.
If defensive coordinator Mike Elko can help scheme past some of the line deficiencies, the Irish should return to the eight-to-nine-win range Brian Kelly achieved in his first six years at Notre Dame.
NATIONAL RANKING: 20
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