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Notre Dame Football: 2018 Fighting Irish Preview and Prediction

Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame Football

Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame's offense was hit hard by NFL departures, which puts even more pressure on the quarterback, a position that remains somewhat up in the air, this fall. The Fighting Irish also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, but nine returning starters should make for a fairly smooth transition. Brian Kelly's team has plenty of talent and enough marquee games on the schedule to stay in the conversation for a College Football Playoff berth. It's just a matter of whether the Irish can put the pieces together, especially to win the games that count the most.

Previewing Notre Dame Football's Offense for 2018

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UConn Football/Athlon Sports 2018 College Football Preview

Notre Dame's No. 7 rushing offense in 2017 took a significant hit on two fronts - running back Josh Adams (1,430 yards) bypassed his senior year, and two of the nation's top offensive linemen, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, are off to the NFL as well.

The pressure is on quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who helped lead the Irish to spectacular results in the red zone (76 percent touchdown rate) but struggled mightily with his accuracy (49.5 percent). Those hiccups carried into the Citrus Bowl, where backup Ian Book saved the day with a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes. Highly touted freshman Phil Jurkovec, a dual threat, will get a look as well in the fall.

Speedy Dexter Williams is the heir apparent at running back, but injuries and the failure to master the playbook have limited him. Tony Jones Jr., also bothered by injuries in '17, is adept at catching the ball coming out of the backfield.

The Irish must break in some new go-to receivers following the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson. Miles Boykin, on the receiving end of Book's Citrus Bowl heroics, headlines the group with Chase Claypool. Both are bigger receivers, while Chris Finke and Michael Young add some dash. Tight ends Alize Mack and Cole Kmet could be one of the nation's top pass-catching tandems at the position.

The offensive line, sans Nelson and McGlinchey, remains solid with veteran center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars. The Irish will benefit from Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey splitting time at right tackle in '17, essentially bringing back four starters.

Previewing Notre Dame Football's Defense for 2018

A year ago, new coordinator Mike Elko was faced with few clear-cut answers. After Elko's hugely successful rebuild, he accepted the Texas A&M coordinator's job. His protege - linebackers coach Clark Lea - was tabbed to maintain continuity. Lea is the beneficiary of nine returning starters, led by cornerbacks Julian Love and Shaun Crawford, linebackers Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill, and a deep and experienced defensive line led by tackle Jerry Tillery.

Concerns remain on the back end of the defense as none of the safeties - all of whom are returning - recorded an interception last year. Navy transfer Alohi Gilman could man one of the spots after sitting out the '17 season. Incumbent Nick Coleman will play a role at safety and/or nickel. Juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and freshman Houston Griffith all have a shot.

Previewing Notre Dame Football's Specialists for 2018

Entering their fourth years as starters, placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome form one of the nation's most experienced tandems. Yoon is 42-of-52 on field goals. Newsome (43.8-yard career average) has a cannon, although he's prone to inconsistency. The Irish will break in a new kick returner. Finke, who averaged just 6.5 yards per his 24 punt returns, is sure-handed and elusive.

Final Analysis

Notre Dame is aiming for its first back-to-back double-digit-winning seasons since Lou Holtz was head coach in 1992-93. Winners of 10 games in two of the last three years, the Fighting Irish remain a difficult read, due largely to the ugly 4-8 season in 2016. It begs the question: Was last year's September-October run for a playoff berth a more accurate depiction of Notre Dame moving forward, or does the collapse in November at Miami and Stanford say more about the up-and-down Brian Kelly regime?

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame