Analysis: Six key players needed for Notre Dame to keep winning

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Anything less than six more wins to finish the season will be a disappointment for Notre Dame football.

Coming off their second bye week of the season, the No. 8 Irish (5-1) have six more games against opponents who have mostly underwhelmed in 2019. The biggest obstacle will likely come on the road Saturday in Ann Arbor against Michigan (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).

But even though Notre Dame should expect to win every matchup throughout the regular season, the Irish will need key contributions from their roster to win the next six games. These six players can help the Irish avoid any letdowns.

LB Asmar Bilal

In the preseason and even the season opener at Louisville, Bilal looked like he may have been more placeholder than impact player in Notre Dame’s linebacker unit. A rotation at inside linebacker seemed not only inevitable, but a product of no single player establishing himself as indispensable.

Bilal may have become exactly that. The graduate student tallied 35 tackles and five tackles for a loss in the first six games.

A defensive game plan that included Notre Dame utilizing only three defensive linemen at times in the 30-27 victory over USC allowed defensive coordinator Clark Lea to keep Bilal and fellow inside linebacker Drew White on the field rather than using the dime package that hasn’t included either of them. Bilal responded with a game-high 11 tackles and two tackles for a loss against the Trojans.

White hasn’t been a slouch either with 29 tackles and a team-high seven tackles for a loss. But Bilal has a bit more versatility and can allow Lea to be creative in designing defensive packages.

The PlayStation Player Impact Rating, a mathematical model from ESPN Sports Analytics, rates Bilal as Notre Dame’s most impactful player and No. 26 in the country. The rating attempts to measure a player’s impact based on the team’s performance with that player on and off the field. Even if the rating has flaws, Bilal’s importance to the defense can be seen weekly.

RB Tony Jones Jr.

The return of a healthy Jafar Armstrong at the running back position should reduce the workload for Notre Dame’s workhorse back. But Jones (80 carries for 557 yards and four touchdowns) has been too productive to take a backseat to Armstrong. The Irish should continue to rely on Jones while working Armstrong back into the mix.

Armstrong may eventually take over as the lead running back in Notre Dame’s offense, but Jones will always have a valuable role. He does too many of the little things well, as head coach Brian Kelly has repeatedly said. Jones, a senior, runs tough and packs a punch as a fearless pass blocker. He protects the football and can catch it too.

Would Notre Dame be in the same position if Jones missed the first six games and Armstrong had been the workhorse? Until Armstrong can prove some durability, it’s hard to feel too confident that he can remain healthy. Fortunately for offensive coordinator Chip Long, he might not have to worry about only having one of them available for the remainder of the season.

That’s also why Long shouldn’t overwork Armstrong. Let him ease back into the rotation. Let Jones and this Notre Dame offensive line continue to make plays.

NG Kurt Hinish

Notre Dame’s defensive line deserves some of the credit for the success of Bilal and White this season. The front four of the Irish demands double teams and prevents opposing offensive lines from reaching clean blocks on Notre Dame’s linebackers.

That starts in the middle with Hinish. The junior plugs the middle of the field with his strength and relentless drive. Nearly half of his eight tackles this season have come behind the line of scrimmage with 3.5 tackles for a loss. Two of those came on sacks as he helps collapse the pocket for opposing quarterbacks.

Even though Hinish plays in a rotation just like the rest of the defensive line, the drop off between Hinish and freshman nose guard Jacob Lacey is significant. The Irish need Hinish on the field chewing up snaps and feasting on opposing offensive lines.

Hinish’s presence will become critical in November with two of the nation’s best rushing offenses (Navy and Boston College) on the schedule.

Another wide receiver

There are options and everyone has their favorite. It might be a healthy Michael Young, speedster Braden Lenzy or sometimes-relevant Javon McKinley. It could even be fifth-year captain Chris Finke once again. Regardless of who it becomes, Notre Dame needs a second wide receiver to be a threat in the passing game.

Quarterback Ian Book shouldn’t have to keep relying on the duo of wide receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Cole Kmet. There needs to be another reliable option to catch passes.

Young, a regular in the rotation, should have plenty of opportunities, but the promise he showed in preseason camp hasn’t been matched in his first three games back from a broken collarbone. Lenzy may be the most tantalizing option, but he needs to show consistency. McKinley has made more plays than the other receiving options this season, but they’ve all come in blowouts against lesser opponents.

Finke seems to be the safest bet. He’s still third on the team with 15 receptions and he’s proven his ability to be a productive option in previous seasons. But his mistakes — a drop that ended in a Georgia interception, a poor block attempt that resulted in him running into Jones on a running back screen against USC and even a muffed punt return — have been puzzling for a veteran leader.

If Finke can return to the kind of player who allowed Notre Dame to beat USC in the 2018 regular season finale (seven catches for 86 yards and one touchdown), the Irish passing game will look a lot different. If it’s not Finke, someone needs to do it.

OT Liam Eichenberg

There’s no obvious dominant force on Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. There aren’t many weaknesses either. That’s how the Irish offensive line has managed to improve Notre Dame’s running game while remaining a successful pass protection group.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Notre Dame offensive line ranked tops in the country in pass-blocking efficiency through the first seven weeks of the season. Credit for that belongs to every member of the offensive line, but it speaks highly of Eichenberg’s protection of quarterback Ian Book’s blind side.

Eichenberg, a senior, has allowed only 10 pressures of Book this season according to the Tribune’s film analysis. That’s two fewer than right tackle Robert Hainsey has allowed and only one more than left guard Aaron Banks has surrendered. Eichenberg was beat for 29 pressures last season.

Providing protection for Book, who likes to move in and out of the pocket at both opportune and inopportune times, can be difficult. But Book bails out his offensive line at times too. If Eichenberg can continue to provide steady protection and sturdy run blocking, this offensive line can continue its upward trajectory.

K Jonathan Doerer

The junior kicker took a big step toward erasing doubts of his ability with three field goals of 43 yards or more in the USC win. Doerer entered August in a kicking competition with freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard. Yet he’s only missed one of his seven field-goal attempts in the first six games.

The offense certainly doesn’t want to have to rely on Doerer as a crutch for stalled drives, but he gives the Irish the luxury of not having to force fourth-down conversions and risk ending many drives in opposing territory without points. Three Doerer field goals have allowed Notre Dame to remain perfect, 22-of-22, in red-zone scoring.

The Irish will likely need Doerer to make crucial field goals later this season. They have reason to be confident he will.

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. (6) may maintain a crucial role in the Irish offense despite the return of running back Jafar Armstrong.
Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy showed his speed when he outran USC’s defense for a 51-yard touchdown in the 30-27 Irish victory.