A second College Football Playoff berth in three seasons continued the momentum for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, even though the finish — a double-digit semifinal loss — left a similarly bitter taste in the mouths of many Irish fans. Notre Dame has won 33 games since the start of that 2018 season, a total that ranks tied for third in the FBS and behind only Clemson (39) and Alabama (38).
That success has been driven in large part by a sizable group of seniors who finished their college careers in 2020 — a group that has won 10 or more games in all four seasons since 2017 — and will pursue their aspirations of playing in the NFL, joined by a key core of graduate students whose college careers started with the 4-8 meltdown in 2016 but finished with the quartet of 10-win campaigns.
Among those graduate students are a couple of captains on the offensive side of the ball whom Notre Dame will certainly miss in 2021 and beyond, especially quarterback Ian Book. Book (30-5) finished as the winningest quarterback in school history and won the 2020 Pop Warner National College Football Award while being named third-team All-ACC by the conference.
His absence, in addition to those of four starters on the offensive line, will undoubtedly be felt in 2021 and beyond. But in their stead will be a fresh crop of talent ready to keep the Irish's 10-win season streak going, both those with previous starting experience and those being called upon to lead at their respective positions for the first time. Here's a position-by-position look at the projected offense for Notre Dame in 2021.
As one graduate student departs, in steps another. Jack Coan arrives as a transfer from Wisconsin and will compete with junior Brendon Clark, sophomore Drew Pyne, and incoming freshman Tyler Buchner for the starting job. Before missing the 2020 season due to a preseason foot injury, Coan won the starting job at Wisconsin in 2019 and threw for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns to 5 interceptions and a 69.6 percent completion rate. Clark (two in 2019, one in 2020) and Pyne (all in 2020) each have three games of on-field experience under their belt, while Buchner arrives as a consensus four-star recruit whose 6,084 total yards (4,474 passing, 1,610 rushing) in 2019 led the nation and was the third-highest single-season mark of all-time.
Kyren Williams was one of the top running backs across the country regardless of age, but his 1,000-yard performance in 2020 coming as a redshirt freshman just adds to the level of excitement around Williams' future. Williams (1,125 yards, 13 touchdowns) will look to build on his second-team All-ACC selection in 2021, while Chris Tyree (496 yards, four touchdowns) enters his sophomore year as a dynamic complementary piece in the Irish backfield.
A pair of fifth-year seniors — Javon McKinley (717 yards, 3 TDs) and Ben Skowronek (439, 5) — were two of the Irish's top three receivers in 2020. Withdrawing the graduate students from the pass-catching equation leaves a blend of veteran experience and talented youth, with Avery Davis, Lawrence Keys III, and Braden Lenzy (should he return healthy after missing time in 2020) comprising the top line of the former category.
Meanwhile, receivers Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts, and Jay Brunelle look to increase their impact as sophomores, while freshmen Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Styles Jr., and Jayden Thomas highlight a talented freshman class aiming to make a splash in their first season on campus.
Michael Mayer's 450 receiving yards sandwiched him in between McKinley and Skowronek, and his immediate impact as a freshman provides plenty of excitement for his continued growth and development. He joins senior George Takacs (three receptions in 2020) and fellow sophomore Kevin Bauman (one) to form a talented returning trio — which, in fairness, is weakened with Tommy Tremble's decision to forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. But the arrival of incoming freshmen Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong will reinforce a position group that has continually excelled for years and featured plenty of versatile playmakers.
When Notre Dame takes the field to open its 2021 season, it is very likely that each starter along the offensive line will be a different name than from this time a season ago, which leaves a number of questions for both the actual personnel group and its configuration. Jarrett Patterson, Zeke Correll, and Josh Lugg all started in 2020 — all at center — with the latter two sharing center duties after Patterson suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has a couple of intriguing options at play. One possibility is to slide the experienced Patterson over to left tackle — replacing Liam Eichenberg, the offense's highest-graded player per Pro Football Focus in 2020 — to protect the blind side of whichever signal-caller wins the job. He could also keep Patterson at center and give the nod at left tackle either to junior Andrew Kristofic, sophomore Tosh Baker, or incoming true freshman Blake Fisher, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound consensus No. 1 player from Indiana in the 2021 recruiting class.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Kyren Williams photo courtesy of und.com)