Analysis: Beyond QB-apolooza, 8 whose offseasons could boost Notre Dame football in 2018
SOUTH BEND — This is Matt Balis’ time.
A time when Notre Dame’s director of football performance transforms bodies and heightens mental resolve for the spring practice grind — now just about 4½ weeks away from kicking off — and beyond.
The one aspect over which the barking/rasping/subtitle-requiring task master has limited control is helping to fix the Irish passing game, which ended up 101st out of 129 in pass efficiency among FBS teams in 2017.
Prolific passing attacks aren’t a requisite to success in college football, but proficient ones are. Among the 20 national champions in the BCS/Playoff Eras (1998-present), the lowest national ranking in that category was 37th by the 2007 LSU Tigers.
Sixteen of the 20 champs ranked 20th or better. The two teams that played for the most recent national title, Alabama and Georgia, finished 10th and 11th, respectively.
The only team to even reach the national title game in the past 20 seasons with a pass-efficiency rating lower than 43rd was the defense-dominated 2012 Notre Dame team, which finished 74th with Everett Golson as the first-year starter.
All of which makes incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Citrus Bowl savior Ian Book, and even redshirted freshman Avery Davis three players whose offseasons/springs could fuel a playoff run by the Irish in 2018.
Beyond those players involved in QB-palooza, here are the eight other Irish players pivotal to whether a 10-3 ND team that finished 11th in 2017 can climb to elite status in head coach Brian Kelly’s ninth season:
• Daelin Hayes, defensive end
Beyond flawed efficiency in the passing game, the statistical element that most separated the Irish from a national championship template in 2017 was pass rush.
Among the four titlists in the playoff era, the lowest national ranking in team sacks has come from recently crowned Alabama, at No. 20. In 2017, the Irish limped in at No. 83, a less-than-seismic improvement from their No. 117 ranking in 2016, but an improvement nonetheless.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound Hayes has the skill set and work ethic to be a big part of the solution in his upcoming junior season.
The only former five-star prospect remaining on the Notre Dame roster, Hayes made significant statistical leaps as a full-time starter in 2017 — from 11 tackles to 30, and from zero sacks and tackles for loss to 3.0 and 6.5, respectively.
But after racking up a third of his season total in tackles in a dominant two-game stretch against USC and North Carolina State in late October, Hayes faded in November. He collected a combined eight tackles over the final five games and never more than two in any single game.
As for the team’s sack totals, after garnering 18 in the first seven games — including a season-high five against USC — the Irish amassed just six total over the final six games. Predictably, the team’s lofty turnovers-gained standing, at midseason, sagged as well.
Having an upgraded safety corps will allow new defensive coordinator Clark Lea to get more creative with pressures and blitzes than predecessor Mike Elko was comfortable with in 2017, but the foundation of the pass rush must come from the front four, starting with Hayes.
• Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
In the intermittent check-ins with Kelly last fall about the progress of redshirting players, the sophomore-to-be from Hampton, Va., was a regular among those making strong impressions.
Should last year’s starter at rover — Drue Tranquill — shift to the buck linebacker position, the 6-2, 204-pound Owusu-Koramoah would compete with incoming freshman Shayne Simon (6-3, 212) and senior Asmar Bilal (6-2, 230) for a starting role.
Redshirting Owusu-Koramoah made sense in 2017, particularly when you consider he didn’t turn 18 until November, and Tranquill was an iron man of sorts at the rover position.
Tranquill’s production at the position in 2017 sets a high bar for the former high school hybrid player, who played safety, linebacker, defensive line and wide receiver in his senior season at Bethel High in Hampton.
Tranquill was ND’s third-leading tackler (85) in 2017, second in tackles for loss (10.5) and first in fumble recoveries (3) in a stat line that checked every box defensively except recording a safety.
Owusu-Koramoah has the potential to replicate that kind of production, but will he be ready to do that in 2017?
• Alizé Mack, tight end
There have been glimpses that match the high expectations that accompanied Mack (then Alizé Jones) from national prep power Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas to South Bend, but not enough to chase away the gnawing questions about whether a momentous stretch/season is ever going to happen for the 6-foot-5, 251-pound senior-to-be at the collegiate level.
More than anyone else on the ND roster, Mack is at a crossroads this winter, and in large part because of the number of self-inflicted hindrances that have mitigated his progress. That included missing the entire 2016 season because of an academic issue.
The fact that the Irish have two immensely talented younger options, in sophomores-to-be Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, heighten the urgency Mack needs to bring to his offseason.
Collectively in 2017, the 45 tight end receptions (with four TDs) are the most by that position group since 2012, when that tight end corps, led by All-American Tyler Eifert, hauled in 58 (with five TDs).
Mack contributed 19 of those 45, tying him for third on the team in receptions behind departing wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (33) and returning junior-to-be Chase Claypool (29). But Mack had just two catches over ND’s final seven games, has just one career TD to his name, and got himself suspended from the Citrus Bowl.
• Dexter Williams, running back
There are three Notre Dame players in history with better career averages-per-carry than Williams’ 6.5 — former All-Americans Reggie Brooks (7.6) and Don Miller (6.8) (the latter of Four Horsemen fame), as well as last year’s starter, NFL early entry Josh Adams (6.6).
And no one with 100 carries or more in a season at ND has had a more productive average in a single season than Williams’ 9.2 in 2017. But Williams didn’t come close to 100 carries last season, so the 97-year-old school record remains with George Gipp (8.1, minimum 100 carries).
In fact, the Orlando, Fla., product heads into his senior season one carry short of 100 in his career and never having more than 39 in a given season.
Adams’ ascension over the past three seasons wasn’t the only impediment to classmate Williams’ bottom line. Injuries and an incomplete skill set tamped down Williams’ opportunities.
Blitz pickup and route-running have to be offseason priorities for a player who heads into 2018 with a paltry six career receptions.
Junior-to-be Tony Jones Jr., and early enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith have complementary skills and figure to be part of a rotation that’s short on quantity — with the January dismissals of Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes — but big on promise.
• Josh Lugg/Liam Eichenberg, offensive line
The biggest wild card in how Notre Dame aligns its post-Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line is new O-Line coach Jeff Quinn.
Does he see the formula, like predecessor Harry Hiestand, in putting your best five linemen on the field, then fitting players to specific positions? Or does he prefer rigidly identifying specific tackles, guards and centers, and developing players in that fashion?
In either case, the players most likely to end up joining the four with starting experience are sophomore-to-be Lugg and junior-to-be Eichenberg, with sophomore-to-be Aaron Banks on the periphery of that discussion.
The only player on the line, now without All-Americans Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, who is a definite to be playing in the same spot as last year is third-year starter Sam Mustipher at center.
Incumbent right guard Alex Bars could play guard on either side of the line. And the right-tackle tag team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey figure to be full-time players somewhere— but at which positions?
If the missing piece in the formula ends up being a tackle, the 6-6, 300-pound Eichenberg likely has the inside track. If it’s a guard, the 6-7, 300-pound Lugg has an advantage.
• Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
The biggest safety on the ND roster (6-1, 220) got most of his playing time early in his freshman season on special teams but nudged his way into more playing time on defense late in 2017 and was impressive with five tackles in the 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan 1.
A late flip from Cal in the 2017 recruiting cycle, Genmark Heath may eventually grow into a rover or linebacker, but in 2018 he could find himself in the starting mix at safety — a position group infused with promising new talent (transfer Alohi Gilman; freshmen Derrik Allen, Houston Griffith, Paul Moala).
New defensive backs coach Terry Joseph brings a fresh set of eyes to the evaluation process. But Kelly’s decision to promote Clark Lea to defensive coordinator to replace Mike Elko, instead of going outside, brings scheme consistency. And that should help the Sweden native continue his recent surge.
• Michael Young, wide receiver
Kevin Stepherson’s train wreck of a postseason/offseason, that ultimately led to his dismissal last month and is keeping the Indiana court system busy, leaves a void at the “field” outside receiver position.
That’s the position that lines up to the wide side and theoretically opens up the rest of the offense by stretching the field with his speed. Think Will Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., and Stepherson in recent seasons.
When Stepherson was suspended for the first four games of 2017 and then struggled for a while to shake the rust upon reinstatement, the ND passing game suffered along with it.
Young — like Stepherson, a once unheralded three-star recruit — will get the first run at stepping into that pivotal spot in the Irish offense.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Saint Rose, La., product wowed the coaching staff in August training camp and again during December bowl practices, but in between was a relative non-factor.
His four receptions during his freshman season for 18 yards, with a long play of six yards, doesn’t scream big-play potential, but he did have a clutch TD reception against LSU in the Citrus Bowl and showed elite speed in practice when the bright lights weren’t on.
It’s possible offensive coordinator Chip Long could reconfigure, and move Chase Claypool out of the slot to the outside to pair with boundary outside receiver Miles Boykin and a gaggle of remaining slot receiver candidates.
It’s also possible an incoming freshman could challenge Young for the spot. Braden Lenzy has the top-end speed, which he’ll also put to use for the Irish men’s track and field team. Kevin Austin is not as fast, but is the more polished route runner.
But neither of them were among the 2018 class' seven early enrollees, so Young has the big stage to himself this spring.