Eight most intriguing Notre Dame players to track heading into winter workouts/spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The counterpoint to the two wildly impressive growth spurts in Ian Book’s game — in December of 2017 and again in August of 2018 — is a small sample size.

Particularly when it comes to facing elite — or even above-average — defenses.

National champ Clemson, which finished fifth nationally in total defense and 15th in pass-efficiency defense, is the only team ranked in the top 45 nationally in either category that the Notre Dame junior quarterback has faced in 10 career starts.

To put that in perspective, every other Brian Kelly/Charlie Weis Era QB with a minimum of 10 career starts was confronted with a top 45 team in pass-efficiency defense in a minimum of 38.7 percent of their starts. And Brandon Wimbush, Dayne Crist and Everett Golson did so in more than 50 percent of theirs.

And when it comes to top 45 total defenses, the minimum among the other Irish QBs going back to 2003 is 36.3 percent, with DeShone Kizer topping out at 69.6 percent. Book is at 10 percent in both categories.

That doesn’t mean Book’s school-record .682 completion rate and nation’s 17th-best pass-efficiency mark (154.0) won’t translate well in 2019 against elite defenses, such as Michigan’s (No. 2 in total defense in 2018), Georgia’s (13th) or Virginia’s (20th). But there’s more conjecture than evidence that it will.

In ND’s 30-3 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson on Dec. 29, Book recorded career lows in a starting role in completion percentage (50.0) and long pass play (23 yards), and a career-low pass-efficiency rating of 83.65 that’s more than 70 points lower than his final season mark.

Then again, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s 145.24 rating in the No. 1 Tide’s 44-16 loss in Monday night’s title game to Clemson was more than 50 points below his NCAA-record 199.4 season mark.

Also relevant is that ND’s defensive collapse in the second quarter — when All-America cornerback Julian Love was injured — necessitated the Irish offense to become unbalanced to try to catch up but ended up playing into Clemson’s defense’s hands and compounding Book’s struggles.

It’s against that backdrop the question becomes: Can/will Book be better in 2019, and if so what will that look like?

The potential range of answers coaxes him to the top spot in the eight most intriguing Irish players to track during winter workouts and spring football.

Spring football begins in early March for the Irish (12-1), who finished fifth in the final AP poll, and concludes with an early Blue-Gold Game date of April 13.

No. 1 Ian Book, quarterback: In watching Clemson mow through its two playoff games by a combined 55 points and against two top 30 defenses, the biggest differences in the Tigers’ passing game and ND’s in 2018 were big-play potential and the ability to push the ball down field vertically on a consistent basis.

Some of that ties into Book. Some of it ties into what’s around him.

The ND offensive line figures to be better in 2019. The running game is a bigger question mark than it was last year. There’s elite speed at receiver but not proven production to go with it.

“When you look at his game, he’s an accurate passer,” former ND QB and current FOX football analyst Brady Quinn assessed on NDInsider’s Pod of Gold Podcast. “I think he’s got a really strong understanding of the offense.

“So I think the only thing you could see more of is a higher level of consistency, a higher level of play. That’s going to come with experience.”

Overall, ND’s offense regressed in about as many areas as it improved in 2018.

Rushing offense was down (from 7th nationally to 51st), as was total offense (27th to 32nd), scoring offense (24th to 41st) and red zone offense (14th to 44th). The passing offense and pass efficiency rankings improved by more than 50 spots. Turnovers lost and third-down efficiency showed subtle improvements.

No. 2 Shayne Simon, linebacker: Notre Dame’s continued evolution into a top-tier defense depends in large part on defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Clark Lea finding able replacements for departing standout inside linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney.

There are all kinds of different directions the Irish could go here — and at rover, with incumbent starting rover Asmar Bilal (who could kick inside) the only player in the mix with significant experience.

Freshman Bo Bauer (middle linebacker) and sophomore converted safety Jordan Genmark Heath (buck) finished the season as the No. 2 options on the depth chart, but the 6-foot-3, 222-pound freshman Simon is the best athlete of the bunch and could ascend quickly once Lea decides if Simon’s future is inside or at rover.

No. 3 Kevin Austin, wide receiver: Leading receiver Miles Boykin’s early departure to the NFL takes away ND’s most dependable/productive target, but it also uncomplicates a needed reconfiguration to get more speed on the field in the wide receiver corps.

Austin isn’t even the fastest among ND’s freshman receivers, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has ample speed and appears to be the 2018 reserve most capable of making a quantum leap in production this fall.

His modest five catches for 90 yards was more a reflection of maturity-related growing pains than a limited skill set. Sophomore Michael Young and freshmen Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr., also could push themselves into the mix in the coming months.

No. 4 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle: Replacing All-American Jerry Tillery will likely be a collaborative effort, with freshman Jayson Ademilola tag-teaming with the cousin of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa.

The Irish coaches believe the 6-3, 285-pound sophomore has NFL potential, and he’ll finally get to show that this offseason after being limited to playing parts of just two games in 2018 ֫— the first and the last — because of a broken foot.

The Irish are loaded with experience and proven depth on the edge, so if ND’s interior defensive line can step up, Notre Dame’s defensive line has the potential to be elite.

No. 5 Avery Davis, running back: The former quarterback’s touches dwindled in the second half of the season, with only five of his 22 rushing attempts and zero of his five receptions coming in ND’s final eight games.

But coach Brian Kelly never considered the 5-11, 204-sophomore a failed position-switch experiment. If anything, he became encouraged that Davis could be the running back on the roster most likely to give the Irish the kind of burst in 2019 that departing senior Dexter Williams did in 2018.

That’s contingent on Davis continuing to remake his body to handle the runs between the tackles. The Irish have quantity at running back, with early enrollee Kyren Williams giving them six bodies in the spring. But do they have a game-breaker?

No. 6 Houston Griffith, defensive back: The top-rated Irish prospect per Rivals at any position since five-star Daelin Hayes in the 2016 class closed the season with diminishing production and a vanishing role.

Just two of his 12 tackles during his freshman season came over the last half of the regular season and he didn’t play a single down against Clemson in the CFP semifinal.

The best positional fit for the 6-foot, 205-pounder still might be safety, but that’s suddenly a position group of quality depth, in part due to the June arrivals of Litchfield Ajavon and, particularly, Kyle Hamilton.

The need is at corner and nickel, with All-American Julian Love’s early departure to the NFL and Shaun Crawford coming back from his third-season-ending injury in four years. Griffith is too talented and too focused not to be part of the answers in the 2019 defensive backfield.

No. 7 Derrik Allen, safety: It’s stunning, given his skill set and pedigree, that the 6-2, 213-pound freshman, didn’t find his way at least onto special teams last season. And Kelly suggested last month that Allen’s long-term future may no longer be at safety, but perhaps rover or linebacker.

In any case, if his effort this winter matches his potential, he could turn into a spring surprise — the good kind.

•  No. 8 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback: The 6-5, 220-pound freshman has the size, running ability, demeanor and “it” factor all in one package that’s closest on the ND roster to what Clemson has in freshman star QB Trevor Lawrence.

He does lack the polish, especially when it comes to mechanics, and that’s a big separator between Jurkovec and Book at the moment.

If nothing else, Jurkovec must evolve into a dependable backup in 2019. Ideally, he’ll be good enough to push Book to the next level of his development. More than ideally, Kelly will end up with two quarterbacks who can win big games for the Irish.

Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) struggled in his only career start against a top 45 defense, Clemson, in the CFP semifinals, Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas.
Opportunities for Notre Dame freshman Phil Jurkovec (15) were limited in 2018, but he’ll have a chance to improve his mechanics this spring.