Ian Book will need to identify some new playmakers around him this spring
There was a culture shift within the Notre Dame Fighting Irish program after the 4-8 finish in 2016, and the result has been 33 wins over the last three seasons. But there are still some mountains to climb. Not only have the Irish not won a national championship since 1988, but they also haven't won a major bowl game since the conclusion of the 1993 season.
The good news is that the Irish are inching close to that level once again, and with a talented core returning and another favorable schedule lined up, a breakthrough could come this fall. The prep work begins in the coming weeks with spring drills.
5 Storylines to Watch During Notre Dame'’s Spring Practice
1. Finding pass catchers
Ian Book's return will benefit the passing game, but the senior quarterback relied heavily on the departed Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, and Cole Kmet last season. This spring, new receivers are going to have to establish themselves as top targets. Wideouts Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, as well as tight end Tommy Tremble, made some plays last fall and might be ready for an increased role. Though nothing has officially been announced, it looks like Javon McKinley will be around for his fifth year and will add some experience, as will Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek. But the most intriguing option may be Kevin Austin. Suspended all last year, the redshirt sophomore has the potential to be a go-to receiver.
2. Finding running backs
Tony Jones Jr. was an underrated part of Notre Dame's 2019 success. Jones was decent at running the ball, but he was the team's best pass-catching threat out of the backfield and was outstanding at blitz pickup. While the Irish wait for the summer arrival of touted freshman Chris Tyree, the spring numbers are okay in the backfield. But there is no obvious lead back that stands out. Injuries slowed down Jafar Armstrong, Jahmir Smith, and Avery Davis at points this past season, and there are questions as to whether or not Armstrong and Davis are actually better suited at other positions. C'Bo Flemister is willing to stick his nose into any tough situation, but is he big enough to be a reliable back? There's also Kyren Williams, who redshirted last year after seeing early action. It would be wonderful if one guy emerged as the primary ball carrier before fall camp opens.
3. Finding a backup quarterback
Book is clearly the starter, and that is the main reason that Phil Jurkovec is now at Boston College. As a result, new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will have to determine who is next in line after Book. There was speculation that Brendon Clark was on the verge of passing Jurkovec on the depth chart, but there is no proof that was the case, and with Jurkovec gone, no one will know. But if that was true, Notre Dame may already have their No. 2 guy. Clark is athletic and has a big arm, so the tools are there. The spring drills will provide him with much-needed experience and the coaching staff will get a better sense of his game readiness. Clark will be pushed by early entry freshman Drew Pyne. Often compared to Book, Pyne had a strong showing at the All-American Bowl.
4. Finding depth at defensive end
Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji are set as the starting ends. But with Hayes' injury history and defensive coordinator Clark Lea's desire to rotate bodies, more quality ends are needed. One player to look for this spring is Isaiah Foskey, a redshirt freshman who was held out early but showed off his considerable talents in three late-season games. Justin Ademilola is another player who may be ready to make a jump. And in terms of pure potential, eyes will be on redshirt freshman Nana Osafo-Mensah and true freshman Jordan Botelho, two players who Lea will put on the edge and tell them to go after the quarterback.
5. Finding a shutdown corner
Troy Pride Jr. was not a No. 1 cornerback in the Julian Love sense, but he still needs to be replaced. Tariq Bracy and Shaun Crawford have seen their fair share of reps, but are either of them capable of defending guys like Clemson's Justyn Ross, Pittsburgh's Taysir Mack, or the USC duo of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns? The fact that Notre Dame should be strong at safety with Kyle Hamilton returning, Houston Griffith shifting to his more natural position, and Isaiah Pryor transferring in from Ohio State will help out the cornerbacks. But hearing reports of a corner being an extreme nuisance for Irish receivers this spring would be good news.
— 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.