SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — For Notre Dame to reach its 2nd straight College Football Playoff, it may have to run the table behind quarterback Ian Book.
“When you step into being the quarterback at Notre Dame, high expectations come with it,” said Coach Brian Kelly, who twice in 9 seasons directed teams to 12-0 regular seasons only to come up short of the school’s 1st national title since 1988.
Last season, the 6-foot, 212-pound Book completed 68.2% of his passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns while leading the Fighting Irish to the playoff, where they lost 30-3 to eventual national champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. Upon his return to campus last winter, Book said he immediately went to work, including on making difficult and tight downfield passes. Book was rewarded when he was named one of the team’s 7 captains.
“Being able to wear the ‘C’ on your chest is a big deal,” Book said. “I’m ready to lead. We know what it takes to get to the playoff. We just have to work on the details.” Echoed Kelly, “Ian’s personality is not one where he’s going to get many speeding tickets. There’s a confidence throughout the entire unit starting to breed, and we’re seeing that because of Ian.”
Sophomore newcomer Jarrett Patterson takes over at center between holdover tackle Liam Eichenberg and guard Aaron Banks to his left and guard Tommy Kraemer and tackle Robert Hainsey to his right. Experienced running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. return, while Book has an experienced wide receiver corps with Chris Finke, Chase Claypool and Michael Young. Big things were expected from junior tight end Cole Kmet, but he suffered a broken right collarbone early in camp and is expected to miss from 4 to 10 weeks. His spot will be shared by sophomore Tommy Tremble and junior Brock Wright.
BORN TO RUN
Armstrong (383 yards) and Jones (392) carried the rushing load early in 2018 before injuries and the return of senior Dexter Williams from a suspension lessened their touches. Williams finished with 12 TDs and 995 yards in the final 9 games. Expect Armstrong and Jones, who are both adept at catching passes, to lead the way again as sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister battle with improving freshman Kyren Williams for playing time.
The Irish defensive line should be strong up front with seniors Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes, who combined for 14.5 quarterback sacks. Senior Troy Pride Jr. moves into All-American cornerback Julian Love’s boundary spot and senior safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott had 162 tackles, 12 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles between them. Kelly and Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea are searching for the right combination to succeed linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill (combined 209 tackles; 18.5 for loss).
Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been impressive at the rover position, allowing last year’s rover, grad student Asmar Bilal, to utilize his quickness at linebacker. When Bilal lines up at the weakside spot, junior Drew White has been impressive in the middle with his physicality to free up junior tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Kyle Hamilton, 6-4, 210-pound safety, has been the most impressive member of the 22-player freshman class.
KICK(ER)S GET HARDER TO FIND
Replacing all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon (367 points on 59 of 73 field goals; 190 of 196 PATs) and punter Tyler Newsome (44-yard career average) will be key. Jay Bramblett averaged almost 40 yards/punt in practice. Junior Jonathan Doerer, inconsistent with his kickoffs last fall and this spring, is the only kicker, battling newcomer Harrison Leonard to succeed Yoon.
ABOUT THAT SCHEDULE
A Labor Day night game at Louisville opens the season. Other road games: Georgia (Sept. 21), Michigan (Oct. 26), Duke (Nov. 9) and the regular-season finale at Stanford (No. 30). The home slate includes Virginia, Virginia Tech, Navy and Southern Cal on Oct. 12. Bob Davie, who coached the Irish (1997-01), brings his New Mexico team to South Bend on Sept. 14.