South Bend, Ind. – For Notre Dame to reach its second 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 has twice in nine seasons directed teams to 12-0 regular seasons only to come up short of delivering the school’s first national title since 1988.
Last season, the 6-foot, 212-pound Book completed 68.2 percent 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 seven 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.”
Kelly has seen the improvements in Book both as a player and leader and seen how his teammates have responded.
“Ian’s personality is not one where he’s going to get many speeding tickets,” Kelly said. “There’s a confidence throughout the entire unit starting to breed, and we’re seeing that because of Ian.”
Experienced running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. return in the backfield, 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 fall camp and is expected to miss anywhere from four to 10 weeks. His spot will be shared by sophomore Tommy Tremble and junior Brock Wright.
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 touchdowns and 995 yards in the final nine 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. Kareem is from Farmington Hills Harrison and Hayes is from Ann Arbor Skyline.
“We have a lot of talent on defense and the blueprint how to get back,” Kareem said.
They will be good, too, in the secondary despite losing All-America cornerback Julian Love. Senior Troy Pride Jr. moves into Love’s boundary spot and senior safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott had 162 tackles, 12 passes defended and four forced fumbles between them.
Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea have been searching for the right combination at linebacker, where Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill had a combined 209 tackles, including 18.5 for losses.
“Our linebacking corps has something we haven’t had in a while and that’s speed,” Elliott said. “We have some guys who can really run.”
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 physicalness to free up junior tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
Kyle Hamilton, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety who enrolled just before summer camp, has been the most impressive member of Notre Dame’s 22-player freshman class with five interceptions in the first six preseason practices.