Jeremy Wahman, Jeff Nunn and Cody Higdon had a small Q&A session with Bryan Driskell (@BGI_CoachD), football analyst at Blue & Gold Illustrated. You can read his great articles here.
In this Q&A, we discuss Notre Dame joining the ACC in football, Notre Dames offense, defense and breakout players as well as a prediction for the season opener on September 2nd at Cardinal Stadium. Enjoy…
CSZ: Notre Dame is 18-7 vs. ACC opponents since 2014 and has recently extended the agreement to play ACC teams until 2037. Do you see Notre Dame officially going to the ACC in football at the end of that agreement or is that totally dependent on the television deal with NBC?
BD: If Notre Dame does join a conference it will be the ACC, and for two reasons. One is that when you look at the conference having institutions like Virginia, Duke, Georgia Tech and others, the ACC is a stronger academic conference than the Big Ten. Two is that they are contractually obligated to join the ACC if they do in fact join a conference. So basically, until 2037 if Notre Dame wants to stop being independent its only move is the ACC.
But Notre Dame has been adamant about wanting to remain independent. There really is no reason for the Irish to join a conference for football right now, and barring some seismic shifts in the landscape there is no appetite to make that kind of move, despite the outcry from those outside.
CSZ: Notre Dame averaged 31.4 points per game last season. With an experienced O-Line and QB Ian Book getting his first full season as a starter, can this team have a Top 5 offense?
BD: Notre Dame averaged 37.2 points in the nine regular season games after Ian Book was inserted into the lineup. The hope for Notre Dame is that it can continue scoring points at a similar clip in 2019. There are factors that are unique for Notre Dame that make it highly unlikely that the offense finishes Top 5 in scoring offense, but I could see a scenario in which the offense certainly finishes in the Top 5 in efficiency.
It finished sixth in 2015 when it had an explosive group of athletes at running back and wide receiver, and it had one of the nation’s top offensive lines. Coaches believe the skillset at both spots is similar now to what it was back then, but unlike that season it will have an experienced quarterback leading the way.
That’s a long road to haul, but when you look at some of the defensive issues its opponents face heading into the season and the return of so many talented skill players, it’s certainly possible.
CSZ: Defense seems to be the concern after losing some big-time playmakers so how will they look to stop the run?
BD: I wouldn’t say defense is a concern for Notre Dame. I don’t know if the Irish will be quite as good as they were last season due to the loss of guys like Drue Tranquill, Jerry Tillery, Julian Love and Te’von Coney, but Notre Dame returns every player that took a snap at defensive end, three key rotation players at defensive tackle and it returns three of the four returning secondary starters that made up one of the top three or four secondaries in the country last season.
Notre Dame is the only Power 5 team in the country return three ends that ranked in the Top 30 in both run-stop rate and pass rush success rate according to Pro Football Focus. Julian Okwara ranked seventh in the country last season in quarterback pressures according to PFF, and his backup – Daelin Hayes – ranks seventh among all returning ends in run-stop success rate.
Notre Dame is also one of just three teams (Clemson and Georgia being the others) that returns two safeties ranked in the Top 15, and senior Alohi Gilman is PFF’s top returning safety. Troy Pride ran a 4.32 in the spring and had stats better than Love – a consensus All-American – in the final six games of the season in 2018.
There are questions at linebacker and depth in the secondary, but if Notre Dame can stay relatively healthy it should once again have at least a Top 25 defense.
CSZ: Last season Notre Dame seemed to play better against the higher ranked teams but didn’t really blow out the teams they were heavily favored over. Any worries that the game against Louisville will be closer than most ND fans would like?
BD: It depends on how quickly Louisville’s talented offensive players pick up the system and if the Cardinals can find four quality linemen to go with Becton. Notre Dame is likely going to score on Louisville, but my concern is that the Cardinals have enough big-play potential to keep the game closer than it should be.
But Notre Dame has played pretty well in openers the last five years. It beat Michigan 24-17 last year, but the Irish led by at least 10 points for 50 minutes in that game and it was never really competitive. From 2014 to 2017, the offense averaged 45.5 points in the openers and had margins of 33, 35 and 31 points. Its only loss was on the road to Texas, a game it lost 50-47 in overtime, which kicked off ND’s 4-8 campaign.
CSZ: Do you see any players on this Louisville team that you wish were wearing a Notre Dame uniform?
BD: Notre Dame tried HARD to land Russ Yeast back in the 2017 class, and the defense has some depth concerns in the secondary. Having him on the roster would be a welcome addition. Offensive coordinator Chip Long loves playmakers on offense, and he’d probably enjoy coaching a guy like TuTu Atwell.
CSZ: Does Louisville have better than a 15% chance to win the game? What is your prediction for the game?
BD: Not in week one. I’m a big believer in Scott Satterfield, but he’ll need time. Bobby Petrino and Brian VanGorder left the program in an absolute mess. There is some talent in spots, but there are some major holes that need to be filled from a personnel standpoint, and it’s going to take him some time to get the culture where he needs it to be.
Notre Dame is a hungry team with a lot of experience and leadership. If things go as expected, 20 of the 22 starters will be juniors or seniors, and it returns far more proven production at wide receiver, defensive line and safety than it did this time a year ago, and this is the rare year where there is no QB controversy in South Bend. This is a game that Notre Dame should win, and win handily.
If this game was played a bit later and the Cardinals had more time in Satterfield’s system I’d be a bit more concerned. I think he put together a really quality staff and I think he’ll recruit well.
CSZ: Since fall camp has opened, the Irish have lost tight end Cole Kmet and offensive lineman Quinn Carroll to injury and safety Derrik Allen to a transfer portal. What has been the morale around the team been like after all this news?
BD: The loss of Kmet is the only one that really impacts the 2019 team. Quinn Carroll was a Top 100 recruit, but he was at best the team’s fourth offensive tackle and was expected to take a redshirt season. Derrik Allen was the team’s fourth or fifth safety, so his departure doesn’t really impact things much.
So neither of those losses will impact morale at all.
The loss of Kmet is certainly a blow, but Notre Dame has recruited that position very well. Notre Dame lost its starting tight end in game two in 2015, and the offense went on to set a school record with 7.0 yards per play. Brock Wright will step into the lineup, and Wright was the nation’s No. 44 player in the country coming out of the 2017 class. Sophomore Tommy Tremble is a freaky athlete that ran a 4.63 in the 40-yard dash as a rising senior in high school, and he’s been a matchup nightmare for Irish defenders.
Neither is as good as Kmet, but both can play.
CSZ: Who are some breakout players Louisville fans should keep their eyes on?
BD: On offense, junior wide receiver Michael Young has been outstanding in fall camp. He caught just seven passes in 2018, but he had two of the three longest receptions of the year from a receiver. He is a 4.4 guy that can stretch the field and do damage after the catch, but doing the little things was an issue for him, as was staying healthy. He’s been steady throughout fall camp and he’s poised for a breakout season.
On defense, junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been a guy that has tantalized with his athleticism since he arrived in 2017 as a 17-year old. He was poised for a breakout last season, but he was injured against Michigan. He’s been arguably the best playmaker on defense throughout fall camp thanks to his speed, range and playmaking ability.
CSZ: This will be Brian Kelly’s tenth season at Notre Dame. What are the expectations going in after a season with making the College Football Playoff last season?
BD: Notre Dame has not won 10 games for three straight seasons since 1991-93, so that is certainly the floor this season. The Irish are expected to go at least 10-2, which is what top programs should be expecting. If Kelly is going to prove that Notre Dame is now in fact one of the premier programs for what is doing now – and not what it did in the past – going at least 10-2 is a must.
The Irish have been in the top four of the playoff rankings in three of the last four seasons, and finding a way to crack that again this season would certainly be welcomed by Irish fans.
CSZ: Going to South Bend is one of a lot of UofL fans all-time favorite sports moments. The sites and tradition were amazing. With ND having not been to Louisville, do you think the Irish will be well represented?
BD: Notre Dame always travels well, and I expect that to be the case for the Louisville game as well. The only thing that could throw a wrench in things is the fact the game is being played on a Monday, which could create some travel woes and getting off work problems for Notre Dame’s fan base, which isn’t centralizing in one state.