August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
No. 22 NOTRE DAME
2016 record: 4-8
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Oct. 21 vs. USC
Biggest conference game: N/A
Three things to know about Notre Dame
• You may have heard that Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016. It was the Irish’s second worst season since 1963.
Notre Dame is a team college football fans love to hate. So when the Fighting Irish went preseason top 10 to a four-win team, it became the biggest running gag of the offseason (sorry). Eight losses is eight losses no matter how you look at it, but when turning toward 2017, the margin of those defeats should give fans some optimism that a turnaround — to some extent — is on the horizon.
Consider the final scores of Notre Dame’s eight losses: 50-47 (2OT), 36-28, 38-35, 10-3, 17-10, 28-27, 34-31, 45-27. That’s an average of 6.25 points per loss. It was an absolutely brutal march that started with a double-overtime thriller at Texas and came to a less-than-merciful end with a 45-27 decision at USC. It felt like we were back in the Charlie Weis era.
But when the losses are that close it usually means a turnaround can’t be too far away, right? We think so, especially when you consider the fact that things didn’t go completely off the rails and it never felt like Brian Kelly lost his team. The schedule is never easy at Notre Dame, but four of the team’s first five games in 2017 — vs. Temple, at Boston College, at Michigan State and vs. Miami (Ohio) — are very winnable. The toss-up of that group is a Week 2 home game against Georgia. A win in that one would have Irish fans feeling pretty good (or get the Brian Kelly hot seat talk off and running).
• So, after going 4-8, what do you do when your job is most likely on the line? For Brian Kelly, it was hiring seven — yes, seven — new assistant coaches. They cover all facets of the football team: offense, defense and special teams. He even brought in a new strength staff, but we’ll stick with the changes at coordinator.
The Irish’s defense was totally abysmal in the early going last year, so Kelly fired Brian Van Gorder. Enter Mike Elko, who, via Wake Forest, inherits a defense that definitely improved as the year went on, but will still have to play some youth. A lot of young guys took their lumps in 2016 and will be better off for it moving forward. Elko’s Wake Forest defense forced 27 turnovers in 2016 while the Irish defense mustered just 14. Led by senior Nyles Morgan, Elko has veterans to work with at linebacker that should find themselves in the backfield more frequently in 2017.
Kelly went younger on offense by bringing in Chip Long from Memphis. Long spent four years as a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Arizona State before getting his first coordinator gig in 2016 at Memphis. Under Long, the Tigers averaged 38.8 points per game — second best in program history. He also helped Riley Ferguson follow first round pick Paxton Lynch at quarterback by setting a program record for TD passes.
Kelly has already said he’ll hand over the play-calling reins to the 34-year-old Long.
“In the hiring process, I was certainly focused on somebody that, first and foremost I believed was an outstanding play caller. There had to have been that connection where I believed that I could fully turn over the play calling and focus my attentions where I knew they needed to be focused on. And that was first and foremost with Chip,” Kelly said on Monday.
Under Long, Memphis put up big yards through the air, but still had a very balanced attack. Kelly said, considering the strength of Notre Dame’s offensive line and tight ends (which go five deep), he wasn’t going to bring in a coordinator who defaults to lot of five-wide sets.
“His ability to utilize the tight ends within the offensive structure — I didn’t want somebody that was going to be four and five wide and just chucking it out over the place,” Kelly said. “I wanted the utilization of our offensive line, which I knew was going to be a strength and continue to be a strength and the tight end position. And Chip had a great background in that and showed that over the last year. So those were two absolute key points in the hiring process.”
The luxury of a stellar offensive line will assist Long with his biggest task: developing a first-time starter at quarterback.
• One quarterback is better than two.
DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire duked it out for the starting role last year and Kelly briefly went with a two-quarterback system. That didn’t go too well, and Kizer was quickly given the ball full-time. Things have changed now with Zaire’s graduate transfer to Florida and Kizer in the NFL. In 2017, it’ll be the Brandon Wimbush show.
Kelly said Monday that Wimbush is the guy. There will be no QB competition. The redshirt sophomore boasts a blue chip pedigree as the No. 60 overall prospect in the 2015 class. He’s barely seen the field so far in South Bend, but unlike many other top recruits, he waited his turn. At just under 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, he has the size and athleticism, plus a huge arm.
In addition to the offensive line, Wimbush has a nice group of playmakers surrounding him, led by Josh Adams — 1,768 yards in two seasons — at running back and Equanimeous St. Brown (59 catches, 961 yards, 9 TDs in ‘16) at receiver.
The unit will cater to the strength of its personnel, he said, but not necessarily to take the pressure off of Wimbush.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever put it on Brandon to just sit back there and, you know, pick the defense apart,” Kelly said. “That’s not what we want him to do. That’s not what we’re going to ask him to do. We’re going to play the game to our strengths.
“But I don’t know that I would go into the season and say, hey, the narrative is let’s take pressure off Brandon Wimbush. No, we want Brandon Wimbush would be one of the 11 guys and contribute with his strengths on the offensive side of the ball, and know that we’ll be able to contribute effectively.”
For more Notre Dame news, visit BlueAndGold.com.
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