Hansen: Can Notre Dame work its way back into playoff relevance in 2020? Part I
Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. Coming Wednesday: A look at the Irish defense and special teams in 2020.
SOUTH BEND — On a night when the first College Football Playoff standings sort of nudged the Associated Press and coaches polls into irrelevancy for the rest of the season, Notre Dame — No. 15 — was relatively extraneous in its own right Tuesday night.
That shouldn’t be the case at this time next year.
Not if the individual parts of the 2020 Irish congeal and look as good eventually on the field as they do now on paper.
That’s not to say there won’t be “ifs” — the most obvious of which figure to be in the cornerback group, and the most subtle of which could be at quarterback.
Then again, maybe not.
So much of what could happen in 2020 will be shaped by how Notre Dame (6-2) finishes this season, starting with its ACC Network debut Saturday night (7:30 EST) at Duke (4-4).
What was evident in its 21-20 survival of 17 ½-point underdog Virginia Tech this past Saturday was that the Irish showed they had the fight to make the rest of 2019 matter. The spotty execution against the Hokies leaves unanswered for another day whether the X’s and O’s are broken or can be fixed.
Statistically, at the moment, they don’t look like a playoff team. Of the five metrics in which championship teams tend to excel — or at least rate in the top 30 — the Irish check only the turnover margin box (10th nationally) among rush offense, rush defense, total defense and pass efficiency.
Defending champion Clemson ranks among the top 30 in all five. Ohio State ranks in the top 10 in all five and in the top five in four of them.
From a scheduling standpoint, Notre Dame plays only two true road games in 2020 — at Pitt and at USC — with four neutral-site games. The most formidable challenge will likely be a November home game with Trevor Lawrence and Clemson.
In the first of two parts, here’s a position-by-position breakdown of where the Irish offense may be headed.
Current State of Affairs: Second-year starter Ian Book showed his moxie in the Virginia Tech win. Now statistical improvement must follow. He enters the Duke game 60th nationally in passing efficiency among the 113 QBs with enough games to qualify for the rankings. Sophomore Phil Jurkovec remains the No. 2 option, with head coach Brian Kelly firmly committed to senior captain Book as No. 1. Freshman Brendon Clark is the No. 3 and remains on track to redshirt.
Roster Churn: Prolific 2021 commit Tyler Buchner will only be a senior in high school next year, but the Irish will add top 100 prospect Drew Pyne to the mix as an early enrollee in January. The intrigue, though, centers on who might not be back.
2020 Projection: Book has a fifth-year option. And if he exercises it, he could be the first third-year starting QB under Kelly at ND. Or Jurkovec could make a run at No. 1. And whoever is No. 2 could look for another place to play. Or not. What is certain is that the quarterback developmental model needs some self-examination so that experienced starters make consistent and appreciable improvement and that backups are more prepared to step in if/when needed.
Current State of Affairs: The Irish rank 72nd nationally in rushing offense, with an inconsistent attack that’s accounted for the first 300-plus-yard rushing performance in an Ian Book start since taking over for Brandon Wimbush, and the two lowest Irish single-game rushing totals (46 yards vs. Georgia, 47 vs. Michigan) since 2014. No. 1 option Jafar Armstrong is back from an early-season injury, but the Irish are now down two offensive line starters.
Roster Churn: There is no one among the six running backs on the roster with expiring eligibility, though Tony Jones Jr.’s fifth-year option could be played out elsewhere. The only addition — and it’s quite a significant one — is recruit Chris Tyree, who’ll bring elite speed and advanced passing-game skills to the position.
2020 Projection: With all five offensive line starters coming back, if Tyree can contribute right away and Armstrong stays healthy, this is a position group that could transform dramatically in one offseason. The Irish, though, need to continue to recruit speed for 2021 and beyond.
Current State of Affairs: Junior Cole Kmet and sophomore Tommy Tremble have emerged as a dynamic combination that has given the Irish schematic and play-calling flexibility. The position group is on a pace (projected 65 catches) to challenge the program’s best season of production in the 2000s (66 catches in 2011). The tight ends have already tied the Kelly Era high for TD receptions (8) in a season with five games to go.
Roster Churn: Does Kmet reverse field, drop his baseball pledge and head to the NFL after this season? If he stays, does junior Brock Wright stick around in a diminished role? In either case, help is on the way — big time. The Irish are expected to sign two of the nation’s top prospects at the position, in December, in Kevin Bauman and Michael Mayer, the latter expected to contribute right away. Sophomore George Takacs provides depth.
2020 Projection: With Kmet, Notre Dame is loaded. Without him, the position group still can be very good and certainly has numbers.
Current State of Affairs: Junior Josh Lugg and grad senior Trevor Ruhland have stepped in for injured starters Robert Hainsey at right tackle and Tommy Kraemer at right guard, respectively. Hainsey (broken ankle) won’t likely be able to participate in contact drills until August. The best-case scenario for Kraemer’s return from an MCL sprain is the regular-season finale at Stanford, on Nov. 30. Even when healthy, the unit sometimes hasn’t been as good collectively this season as its individual parts seemed to be. It did make the 24-team Joe Moore Award midseason honor roll, however.
Roster Churn: It’s much more likely than not that all five original starters return, with center Jarrett Patterson the only one among them who’s not draft-eligible. Ruhland is the only lineman on the roster with expiring eligibility. Of the two standout additions in the current recruiting cycle, tackle Tosh Baker is good enough to add depth right away and star power down the road.
2020 Projection: The overall talent, depth and recruiting momentum at this position group has been outstanding since O-Line coach Jeff Quinn took over for Harry Hiestand after the 2017 season, but 2020 will be a fair referendum on his player development skills. There’s no reason this unit shouldn’t be strongly in the mix for the Joe Moore Award next season.
Current State of Affairs: It’s Chase Claypool (37 catches, 554 yards, 4 TDs) and everyone else, though slot receiver Chris Finke (20, 238, 1) has gained some momentum recently after a trying start to the season. Projected starter Michael Young elected to enter the transfer portal last month, so ND is trying to coax production out of a trio of ascending players — Javon McKinley, Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy.
Roster Churn: Claypool and Finke are gone after the season. Young, a junior, didn’t wait that long. And there could be more transfers from among players buried on the depth chart. Freshman Cam Hart left the position group after getting moved to cornerback a month ago. There are some exciting additions, however, led by five-star recruit Jordan Johnson. Xavier Watts, among the three incoming freshmen, also has the potential to play early. Jay Brunelle will be an early enrollee. Exiled sophomore Kevin Austin, suspended for the 2018 season, could be a starter in 2019. McKinley has played well enough that a fifth-year option, which seemed highly improbable last summer, could come into play.
2020 Projection: The Irish lose a go-to presence in Claypool as well as Finke, but gain speed options. Receivers coach Del Alexander has upped his recruiting game big time, especially when you consider how the 2021 class is already shaping up. The next challenge for him, though, is getting that young talent to be productive without a protracted breaking-in process.
Aug. 29: vs. Navy*
*Aviva Stadium; Dublin, Ireland
Sept. 12: ARKANSAS
Sept. 19: WESTERN MICHIGAN
Sept. 26: vs. Wake Forest*
*Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Oct. 3: vs. Wisconsin*
*Lambeau Field; Green Bay, Wis.
Oct. 10: STANFORD
Oct. 17: at Pittsburgh
Oct. 24: DUKE
Nov. 7: CLEMSON
Nov. 14: vs. Georgia Tech*
*Mercedes-Benz Stadium; Atlanta
Nov. 21: LOUISVILLE
Nov. 28: at Southern Cal