Six questions Notre Dame football needs to answer in preseason camp
The first 30 minutes of a Notre Dame football practice typically don’t include the most entertaining and insightful portions of the day’s session, but every one of those minutes will be cherished Saturday.
The last time reporters were allowed to watch a Notre Dame practice in person came on March 5 of last year. We had no idea the COVID-19 pandemic would wipe out the rest of spring practice, force college football into an unprecedented season and leave us waiting 520 days to see another practice.
But Saturday marks the end of having to dissect every practice clip distributed by Notre Dame and relying solely on the coaching staff for development updates. Over the course of six different practices through August 25 — four 30-minute viewing windows and two full practices — we’ll be able to make our own observations and form our own opinions of head coach Brian Kelly’s team.
I’ve never been happier to see gold helmets running around the Irish Indoor Athletics Center and LaBar Practice Complex. That joy won’t distract from the opportunity to take stock in the tantalizing upside and lingering deficiencies of the 2021 Irish. Starting Saturday, I’m hoping to have better answers to the following six questions.
Does quarterback Jack Coan have what it takes to elevate the offense?
The Wisconsin grad transfer won’t be able to escape comparisons to the starting quarterback who came before him at Notre Dame, Ian Book, or the freshman quarterback who has been pitched as the next big thing for the Irish, Tyler Buchner. Fair or not, Coan’s Notre Dame legacy will be measured by how he bridges the gap between those two quarterbacks.
Coan can fortify his own path if he brings something to the Notre Dame offense that Book didn’t as the winningest quarterback in program history. Coan had moments as a Wisconsin starter in 2019 that showed he could make plays with his arm and be a steady hand in winning games. Can he be decisive in the Irish offense, make the right decisions in the red zone and help stretch the field?
If Coan can’t meet those needs, the Notre Dame fan base will once again be pining to see what’s next behind Coan whether Kelly’s ready to make that decision or not.
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Can the mix of young talent and veteran experience produce a dominant offensive line?
Losing four starters to the NFL should be a recipe for a struggling offensive line in most programs. But that can’t be the case at Notre Dame. The Irish need the offensive line to be a strength if they have any chance at making another run to the College Football Playoff.
The immediate emergence of freshman left tackle Blake Fisher in the spring and grad transfer addition of All-American guard Cain Madden in June made reaching that standard a more attainable reality. They still need to prove they can handle the leap of playing on Saturdays and one Sunday for the Irish.
Being a spring wunderkind is much different than protecting a quarterback in Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium on Sept. 5. And being a Pro Football Focus favorite at Marshall is much different than meeting the standard set by Quenton Nelson and Aaron Banks as a Notre Dame left guard.
The pieces to the offensive line puzzle appear to be mostly set, but it’s up to offensive line coach Jeff Quinn to make sure they complete a pretty picture.
Which wide receivers can offensive coordinator Tommy Rees trust?
There’s no more time for seniors Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr. to be cast as players with promising futures. Their time to produce is now.
Staying healthy will be a requirement that they’ve all struggled with at times. But someone needs to step up to support graduate senior Avery Davis at the wide receiver position. Late-career surges have been wide receiver coach Del Alexander’s specialty at Notre Dame with Miles Boykin and Javon McKinley. He may need to produce a couple more examples this season to give Rees reason to design a more explosive offense.
Austin and Lenzy may be the most intriguing options because of their athletic traits. The confidence in them will need to be earned in August if they’re going to be relied on through December.
Who will give the defense a potent pass rush in defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme?
Notre Dame’s defensive line could become one of the biggest benefactors in a scheme change from former defensive coordinator Clark Lea's front four to Freeman’s multiple front looks. Versatility and unpredictably may supercharge a unit that’s been dependable but not quite dominant in pursuing the quarterback under defensive line coach Mike Elston.
Unlocking junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey’s potential will be a major key. The shift from defensive tackle to defensive end for graduate senior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa started to make a lot of sense by the end of the spring. Those two will likely have a big say in whether the Irish can finish in the top 25 in sacks per game for the first time since 2012.
Elston likes to utilize his defensive linemen in waves, so there should be plenty of opportunities for other defensive ends and defensive tackles to provide disruption.
Can the cornerbacks handle the man coverage assignments given to them?
If Notre Dame’s cornerbacks get beat this season, they shouldn’t have a complicated coverage scheme to blame. Freeman wants his cornerbacks to be matched up man-to-man in most circumstances. It’s a demanding challenge for a position group light on reliable experience.
Clarence Lewis proved capable of holding up in coverage last season as a freshman, but he will be asked to be more assertive. TaRiq Bracy needs to rediscover his confidence after a shaky junior season.
The praise Kelly threw at junior Cam Hart and sophomore Ramon Henderson in the spring raised the expectations for the depth of the unit. The more options cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens can develop at the position, the more likely the group will be able to meet the man-to-man demands.
Does Kyle Hamilton have a reliable sidekick at safety?
Shaun Crawford brought inspiration and leadership to the safety group as a sixth-year senior last season, but the need to play the 5-foot-9 Crawford alongside Hamilton didn’t speak highly of the safeties behind them. Senior Houston Griffith’s near exit of the program in January showed a disconnect of some sort on the back end.
Now first-year safeties coach Chris O’Leary, who spent the last three seasons as an Irish analyst and graduate assistant, is tasked with making sure Griffith and fellow senior DJ Brown are capable of playing alongside Hamilton for a whole season and not just in case of emergency.
Whoever starts next to Hamilton cannot be a liability. Forcing Hamilton to cover up for the other safety would only limit his ability to make plays. There’s no reason the All-American and likely first-round draft pick should end another season with only one interception.
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.