No. 19 Notre Dame
Brian Kelly knew another 4-8 season would cost him his job. So he made dramatic changes to everything from his coaching staff and play-calling duties to daily player interactions and film study.
The Irish appear to have enough offensive talent to find more consistency and big plays under new coordinator Chip Long. Can a revamped defense under new coordinator Mike Elko do the same?
2016 Record: 4-8
You would've been laughed out of the room had you predicted a four-win season for Notre Dame.
The Irish hadn't lost six games in a season since 2009. They matched that total with a one-point loss to Navy on Nov. 5 — and surpassed it with season-ending losses to Virginia Tech and USC. As miserable as it felt, it wasn't that bad. Seven of the eight defeats came by eight or fewer points and four came by three or fewer points.
Still, it was their worst record since 2007 and one of only two seasons in the last 50 years without at least five victories.
Head Coach: Brian Kelly (8th years, 59-31)
Four years after taking Notre Dame to the national championship and one year after a 10-win season, Brian Kelly was reminded how quickly (and ruthlessly) things can change.
"(I) focused way too much on production and not the process itself and how important it is to have that attention to detail," Kelly said before they opened camp. "I let our football team down not focusing on those very important values and that process and went right to production."
The failures led to sweeping changes on his staff. Kelly, who says changes would've come regardless of their record, hired two new coordinators and four other staffers, including a new strength and conditioning coach.
"I had realized we had some issues going into the season. We had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. I had done a poor job developing our leadership.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Brandon Wimbush, RB Josh Adams, RB Dexter Williams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, TE Alizé Mack, OT Mike McGlinchey, G Quenton Nelson
The lowest-profile quarterback to start for Notre Dame in a long time, Brandon Wimbush takes over after DeShone Kizer unexpectedly left early for the NFL.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound dual-threat quarterback is a former four-star recruit (No. 46 overall player in 2015) with seven career pass attempts. He appeared in two games as a true freshman before redshirting behind Kizer and Malik Zaire last year. Despite the inexperience and lack of competition, Wimbush has been praised for offseason improvements.
“I know … that there is not 1A and 1B like there was last year,” Brian Kelly said as camp opened, “but those kids are so competitive that we don’t have to create competition. They are so competitive in the way that they go to work every day, I’m not worried about that.”
New quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees and coordinator Chip Long are trying to find a good balance for Wimbush's running and passing abilities.
Experience is a non-issue at running back, where junior Josh Adams is back after two-straight 800-yard seasons. He's averaging 6.5 yards per carry in his career and proved to be a weapon in the passing game last year. Backup Dexter Williams could see 75 or more carries.
Leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown returns after a breakout sophomore campaign that featured a 16.6 yards-per-catch average. And tight end Alizé Mack (aka Alizè Jones) is back after missing all of last year to focus on academics.
Four starters return on the offensive line, including potential top-15 NFL Draft picks Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and Quenton Nelson at left guard.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Jerry Tillery, DE Andrew Trumbetti, LB Nyles Morgan, LB Drue Tranquill, LB Greer Martini, CB Julian Love, CB Shaun Crawford
Brian Kelly hit the jackpot when he lured defensive coordinator Mike Elko from the same position at Wake Forest. The best coordinator hire in college football, Elko was hired to "keep the points down, negate big plays, create negative plays."
In 2016, the Deamon Deacons' defense ranked in the top 20 in scoring (20th), sacks (12th), turnovers forced (10th) and fumbles recovered (third). In the same categories, Notre Dame ranked 62nd, 118th, 104th and 94th. They had a miserable 30 combined turnovers and sacks.
Two of Elko's primary disrupters are linebackers Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquil, a converted safety who will play a rover position.
“It's been a good fit all spring,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Tranquill after the spring game (below). “He's a plus player there for us. He really can impact what's happening from snap to snap. He's a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”
Up front, senior tackle Jerry Tillery has been a space-filler but he's still looking for a breakout campaign, as is fellow senior Andrew Trumbetti. The latter, a 6-foot-4, 251-pounder, has just two career sacks but has improved dramatically, says the coaching staff.
“He looks like the guy that we recruited out of high school,” Kelly said of the former four-star recruit. “He was a dominating player in high school, had an edge about him. And we did a poor job of developing him until this year. And he is at that point where he’s going to make an impact, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
And in the secondary, it's all about young and returning talent. Julian Love played well as a true freshman and Shaun Crawford is finally healthy after missing 2015 with a torn ACL and all but two games last year with a torn Achilles.
Notable Player Losses
QB DeShone Kizer, QB Malik Zaire, WR Torii Hunter Jr., WR Kevin Stephenson, DT Jarron Jones, DE Isaac Rochelle, LB James Onwualu, CB Cole Luke
DeShone Kizer is gone after an up-and-down career. He impressed as a sophomore in 2015 when unexpectedly pressed into duty, completing 63 percent of his passes and averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. His touchdown-to-interception ratio did improve in 2016 but he regressed in other areas.
Backup quarterback Malik Zaire (transfer) is also gone, as are their second- and third-leading receivers Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stephenson. Hunter retired from football and is pursuing a baseball career.
Defensively, end Isaac Rochelle was the unit's lone draft pick, though they also lost tackle Jarron Jones (10.5 tackles for loss), linebacker James Onwualu (77 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles) and corner Cole Luke (six passes defended and two interceptions).
Notable Player Additions
WR Michael Young, DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, DT Kurt Hinish
If all goes well, no freshmen will start for Notre Dame this season. Many, however, will play big reserve roles.
Brian Kelly said Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish — both three-star recruits — have done well over the offseason and early in fall camp.
“Myron and Kurt are players that have separated themselves at the defensive tackle position . . . Those guys have what it takes to contribute as freshmen. We see them both playing as freshmen."
Also keep an eye on Michael Young, another three-star prospect who was the 73rd-ranked receiver in the nation. Bryan Driskell of Blue and Gold Illustrated said on Aug. 5 that he was hoping Young could redshirt but "he is way too dynamic to not play."
Good luck finding an easy win on Notre Dame's 2017 schedule.
Temple will take a step back after the departure of Matt Rhule and a lot of key players but they're still a potential eight-win team. Miami (OH) is dramatically improved and will compete for the MAC championship.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Temple|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Boston College|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Michigan State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Miami (OH)|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at North Carolina|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. USC|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Wake Forest|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Miami (FL)|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Navy|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Stanford|