In Athlon's 2018 College Football preview, Notre Dame was ranked at No. 15. What occurred on the Fighting Irish's surprising run to the College Football Playoff was that several lesser known players unexpectedly emerged as key contributors.
At this time last year, Brandon Wimbush was the starting quarterback and Ian Book was the backup. Dexter Williams was about to begin serving a four-game suspension. And Alohi Gilman was an unknown commodity after transferring from Navy. But by the middle of the season, Book, Williams, and Gilman were leading the Irish to victory after victory.
Will a similar story be told this fall? If it does, here are seven players — three on offense, three on defense, and a vital special teamer — that will have to make an impact.
Jayson Ademilola, DT
Despite losing both of last year's starting defensive tackles, including first-round draft pick Jerry Tillery, the Irish have a couple of capable returnees in Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. But the player with the highest upside on the interior is Ademilola. A heavily recruited player out of high school, the New Jersey native had 18 tackles and half a sack as a true freshman last fall. He will start out as the backup to Tagovailoa-Amosa at the 3-technique but will look to be a factor by subbing in on passing downs.
Jafar Armstrong, RB
Armstrong came in as a wide receiver but was switched to running back last year in part because of the depth issues caused by Dexter Williams' suspension. Armstrong showed some flashes in the four games that Williams missed and had five touchdowns in that time. But after getting banged up and then getting fewer looks with Williams back, Armstrong had just 110 rushing yards the rest of the year. The junior showed a burst in the spring game and now the starting job should be his. The Irish should be able to move the ball through the air with Book, but they will need Armstrong to provide balance if the offense is to really hum.
Kevin Austin, WR
Like Dexter Williams last year, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the sophomore wide receiver. Head coach Brian Kelly doesn't comment on disciplinary measures, but there is speculation that Austin will be suspended to start the season. No one really knows what happened or how long the suspension will last, especially since some speculate that the incident may have occurred midseason and Austin was held out of the last two games of 2018. Whatever the case, when he returns, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder will play an important role. Chase Claypool and Chris Finke are reliable, move-the-chains pass catchers. But Austin – along with perhaps Braden Lenzy and Michael Young – could be a downfield threat to open up the offense.
Jonathan Doerer, K
All Doerer has to do is fill the shoes of Justin Yoon, Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer. Last year's audition as the kickoff specialist did not go all that well for Doerer. He kicked three balls out of bounds and, whether it was his fault or not, two of his kicks were returned for touchdowns. He also missed an extra point in nine attempts. All of that will be forgotten, though, with a solid 2019. Doerer is the only scholarship kicker on the roster, though he may get tested by freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard.
Houston Griffith, CB
Julian Love is gone and Griffith will get the first crack at corner, but in reality, the sophomore will not be asked to replace the All-American cover man. In man-to-man situations, Troy Pride will go against the opponents' top receiver. The Irish want Griffith to just do his part. If he is up to the task, the Notre Dame defense, with a strong secondary and relentless edge rushers, will be tough to throw against.
Jarrett Patterson, C
Patterson will be the lone newcomer on the offensive line as he takes over for three-year starter Sam Mustipher. While Dexter Williams provided some big plays in the running game, the Irish were stuffed at the line too often last fall. Improvement from guards Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer will help rectify this issue – especially in short-yardage situations – and so too will competent play from Patterson. The coaches have raved about his technique and tenacity, feeling that he has NFL potential.
Shayne Simon, LB
The sophomore from New Jersey could wind up at any of the linebacker spots and also could see time at Rover. He is currently listed as the backup to Asmar Bilal at middle linebacker, but if the need arises at Buck or Rover, he could slide in at either of those spots. The Irish are still looking for players to slot in around Bilal – and Bilal is not necessarily a lock to play every down either – and the most talented athletes that can fit into the system will play. Athleticism is not a problem for Simon. He and the coaching staff just need to figure out how he fits into the 2019 plans.
— 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.