The return of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara is a big boost for the Notre Dame defense
The season ended with a thud, but 2018 was a very good year for Notre Dame. A 12-1 record with the only loss coming in the College Football Playoff to the eventual national champion is above and beyond what was expected in the preseason.
But it is more than just the record that should have Irish fans feeling upbeat. After the disaster of 2016, Notre Dame made huge progress the next season, though one problem was that the team flopped in November, dropping two games late in the year to not only fall out of the championship chase, but out of New Year's Six consideration as well. This fall, the Irish got off to another good start and finished with a 4-0 final month to lock down that playoff spot.
The improvement that was made in 2017 was built upon in '18 and here are three reasons why Notre Dame will again be a factor in '19.
1. Defensive edge playmakers
There was concern after the season that defensive ends Julian Okwara and/or Khalid Kareem could turn pro. But both will be back, giving the Irish bookend stars along the defensive line. Okwara is the returning team leader in sacks and Kareem had a big year despite battling nagging ankle issues for most of the season. Along with Okwara and Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji are returning veterans that have made big plays during their time at Notre Dame. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea should be thrilled to have a deep group of talented performers returning on the edge.
2. Quarterback play
Ian Book completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. The good news is that he should be the starter from day one this coming season. That is unless Phil Jurkovec beats him out. Jurkovec, the highly touted rising sophomore, has the tools to be an exceptional quarterback and as Clemson and Alabama showed during the past two seasons, it’s better to go with talent over game experience. That being said, Book is more than solid and if he can develop consistency on his deep throws, he will be tough to unseat. Whether it’s Book or Jurkovec, Notre Dame can expect quality play from their signal-caller.
3. Strong secondary
Despite losing Julian Love early to the NFL, the Notre Dame defensive backfield should still be a strength on that side of the ball once again. Alohi Gilman was the type of safety that Notre Dame has been missing: tough, smart, and able to make plays. His presence brought out the best in his sidekick, Jalen Elliott, who also returns in 2019. Troy Pride is more than capable of becoming the corner that takes on the opposition’s top receiver and the group will be lifted by the return of Shaun Crawford from injury. Houston Griffith and Tariq Bracy saw action this year that will benefit both going forward and the Irish have recruited this area well in past couple of recruiting cycles, including the most recent class that features star safety Kyle Hamilton.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.