For the first time since Lou Holtz stalked the sideline for the Irish more than two decades ago, Notre Dame has put together back-to-back double-digit-winning seasons. In fact, that's three of the last four years, which is approaching the rarified air breathed by Holtz from 1986-96.
So is Brian Kelly on the verge of competing for a CFB Playoff spot on a regular basis, or is a market correction due?
Based upon the talent returning from a 12–1 squad that lost to eventual national champion Clemson, the depth accrued by Kelly and his staff, and a schedule that looks manageable, the arrow is pointing up.
Previewing Notre Dame's Offense for 2019
Notre Dame's 2019 offense is primed to approximate last year's 37.2 points per game over the final nine regular-season games. Led by quarterback Ian Book, four returning starters along the line and a pass-catching unit that was the most pleasant surprise of the spring, the Irish should exceed the best single-season scoring mark under Kelly (34.2 ppg in 2017) in the 10th year of his Notre Dame reign.
Book, who took over as the starting quarterback in place of Brandon Wimbush in the fourth game of the 2018 season, exploded onto the scene, throwing at least two touchdown passes in all eight of his regular-season starts while averaging 306.9 yards passing per game.
Book and the Irish running backs should benefit greatly from the return of offensive line starters Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg at tackle and Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks at guard. Third-year offensive coordinator Chip Long emphasizes the running game but won't miss on the opportunity to take advantage of Book’s passing prowess.
Breakaway back Dexter Williams is gone, but former receiver Jafar Armstrong looks like a capable replacement, with two-year contributor Tony Jones Jr. combining with him to form a notable tandem and an adept pass-catching duo out of the backfield.
Chase Claypool is the projected go-to receiver following Miles Boykin's departure. Former walk-on Chris Finke is an elusive slot receiver. Michael Young is ready to ascend as the third starter at receiver with a promising quartet of sophomore wideouts waiting in the wings.
Tight end perennially is a strong position for the Irish. The 2019 season should be no different, with Cole Kmet a potential standout joined by classmate Brock Wright.
Previewing Notre Dame's Defense for 2019
Clark Lea had it pretty good in his rookie season at the helm of the Irish defense. Lea benefited from the decisions by defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney to stick around Notre Dame for another season. Lea rebuilt the back end of the defense with safeties Jalen Elliott and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, and he reaped the benefits of record-setting cornerback Julian Love with rising standout Troy Pride Jr. Tillery, Tranquill, Coney, Love and nose tackle Jonathan Bonner all are gone, which offers a unique challenge for the 37-year-old Lea.
The strength of Notre Dame’s 2019 defense is its bevy of pass-rushing defensive ends, led by seniors Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes, as well as at least two others who could start on most Power 5 conference teams.
Depth at tackle is a concern, but Kurt Hinish and Jacob Lacey at the nose and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jayson Ademilola at three-technique give the Irish an interior unit with run-stopping abilities.
The linebackers are very young and inexperienced except for fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal, who moves from outside to inside linebacker.
The back-end duo of Gilman and Elliott has a chance to be one of the nation’s better sets of safeties. Pride needs a running mate at cornerback. The Irish also need fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford to re-emerge at nickel after he suffered his third season-ending injury in '18.
Previewing Notre Dame's Specialists for 2019
The losses at placekicker and punter are acute. Justin Yoon was the picture of consistency as Notre Dame’s kicker from 2015-18, while booming punter Tyler Newsome was a great athlete with the clutch gene. Junior placekicker Jonathan Doerer was inconsistent throughout the spring, while early entry freshman Jay Bramblett is the only real option at punter. Finke is a veteran, sure-handed, darting punt returner (9.8-yard average). Young had a 48-yard kick return last year, but he averaged just 21.2 for his nine attempts.
Kelly has settled in as Notre Dame's head coach in his 10th season with the Irish. The 4–8 season of 2016 is a distant memory as the Irish have won 22 of their last 26 games. He’s relaxed. He's in control. He has two young, exciting coordinators, and he's established a consistently productive recruiting approach.
Considerable talent walked out the door following the 2018 season. The last time the Irish lost this much talent was after the 10-win season of 2015, and Notre Dame promptly lost two-thirds of its games. But the Irish have way more going for them in '19 than the hand Kelly was dealt three years ago.
Another playoff berth likely depends upon three road trips — Georgia, Michigan and Stanford in the regular-season finale.