Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida
No. 9 Notre Dame
2018 record: 12-1
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
How good can Ian Book be?
Is it fair or an overstatement to say that Ian Book was a revelation at quarterback in 2018?
Book didn’t open the season as the Fighting Irish’s starter. Instead, he was the No. 2 QB to Brandon Wimbush. As Notre Dame beat Michigan to start the season and had close wins over both Ball State and Vanderbilt, Wimbush remained the starting quarterback.
Everything changed against Wake Forest. Book took over in that game as the Irish scored eight touchdowns in a 56-27 win. The only other game he didn’t start the rest of the season was against Florida State due to injury.
A Notre Dame passing offense that was inefficient with Wimbush under center took off with Book. As Wimbush completed just 53 percent of his passes for just seven yards an attempt, Book was a 68 percent passer and averaged over eight yards per pass. Throw in the addition of running back Dexter Williams after a four-game suspension to start the season and Notre Dame’s offense went from being above average to pretty damn good.
And Book could be even better in 2019, according to coach Brian Kelly.
“I think he knows the little things he can be better at,” Kelly said earlier in August. “We've addressed them internally about those things, but I think he's already begun, and that is to make the others around him better players. I think what we've seen is a leader, and we've put him in a leadership position. He's just doing such a great job leading. His presence is one where, when he asks some people to do things, they're doing it. The respect that he has is different than last year.”
Book has the benefit of four starters on the offensive line returning in 2019. The unit should be better than it was in 2018, when it had to replace first-round draft picks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones form a tandem at running back that should adequately replace Williams, and Chase Claypool and Chris Finke are back at receiver.
Replacing key players on the defense
The Irish defense was one of the best in the country in 2018. Notre Dame allowed 18 points per game, gave up fewer than four yards per carry to opposing offenses and held opponents under five yards per play for the entire season.
But a lot of guys who made that defense very good are off to the NFL. The Irish need to replace the interior defensive line presence of Jerry Tillery, a lockdown corner in Julian Love and, perhaps most importantly, its two most productive linebackers in Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill.
Coney led the team with 123 tackles and also had four sacks in 208. Tranquill was third on the team with 86 tackles and had 3.5 sacks. While Asmar Bilal is back at middle linebacker, there are questions around him.
“I have worked our [practice] schedule to make sure we get more reads for key linebackers to see them flow to the football,” Kelly said. “That's an important part of our evaluation, giving them the opportunity and giving [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] enough evaluation to both chart to see how their production is, as well as see it and make some evaluations as to how that's all going to pan out.”
Jack Lamb exited spring practice atop the depth chart at the buck linebacker spot while Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led at the rover spot. Kelly also signed four linebackers in his 2019 recruiting class. It won’t be much of a surprise to see one or two get some significant playing time by the end of the season.
While the linebacker spot doesn’t have the star power it did in 2018, there’s still a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Julian Okwara had eight sacks in 2018 and elected to stay for his senior season and will form a strong DE tandem with Khalid Kareem. Safety Alohi Gilman is back for his senior season too; he was second on the team in tackles with 95 in 2018. And senior corner Troy Pride should be ready to step in as the No. 1 CB.
Another fairly manageable schedule
Notre Dame was entirely worthy of a playoff spot by virtue of going undefeated in 2018. But the Irish’s schedule was a lot more manageable than it might have looked at the beginning of the season. Florida State, Navy, USC and Virginia Tech had down seasons.
There are two really tough games on Notre Dame’s schedule in 2019. But like last year’s slate, the rest of the games are pretty manageable.
After trips to Georgia (Sept. 21) and Michigan (Oct. 26), the rest of the schedule is pretty kind. There’s a trip to Stanford to end the season, but Notre Dame gets Virginia, Virginia Tech and USC all at home, where Notre Dame hasn’t lost since a 20-19 game against UGA in September 2017.
It should be New Year’s Six bowl or bust for the Irish. One word of warning, however: Notre Dame faces six teams who are off the weekend before playing the Irish. And five of those games come while the Irish have only a week of preparation.
Biggest game: at Michigan (Oct. 26)
We’re taking the game against the Wolverines over the game against the Bulldogs as the biggest of the season. Notre Dame heads to that game with an off-week ahead of time and the knowledge that it took care of business to start the season against Michigan in 2018. If Notre Dame is a reasonable 5-1 heading into that game, a win vaults the Irish into the early playoff discussion.
WR Chase Claypool
Claypool thrived alongside Miles Boykin in 2018. Claypool had 50 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns. Those marks were second in all three categories to Boykin. But Boykin is now off to the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens, and Claypool is now the No. 1 target for Ian Book.
Claypool is also entering the 2019 season as he recovers from ankle surgery. Kelly said the team will be managing his workload ahead of the season-opening game against Louisville on Sept. 2.
“We're going to slowly get him back up to 100 percent and then peak him for Louisville,” Kelly said.
That’s the smart plan. A healthy Claypool will go a long way for Notre Dame’s offense.
Biggest question mark
From Lou Somogyi of BlueandGold.com The middle of the defense. In the interior, the Fighting Irish graduated first-round tackle Jerry Tillery and nose guard Jonathan Bonner, who started all 26 games in 2017-18. No returning player there has made a start, and one of the projected mainstays, junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, missed 11 games last season with a broken foot.
Right behind them on the second level, no tandem played a greater role in Notre Dame’s 22-4 mark the past two seasons than inside linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney, who combined for 410 tackles, 42 for loss, during that stretch. Fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal moved from rover to help fill one of the spots, and the other position is wide open among a half-dozen candidates.
Blue and Gold Illustrated’s breakout player
LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Redshirted as a freshman in 2017 because he didn’t even turn 18 until November, and sidelined early last September with a broken foot, the junior has seized the rover role with his combination of explosiveness, improved aggressiveness and budding instincts. The coaching staff believes he is a prototype for the hybrid linebacker/safety slot.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
DE Julian Okwara
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The younger brother of Detroit Lions pass rusher Romeo Okwara, the Irish’s ascending rusher was one of eight seniors who received a first-round grade from National Football Scouting this summer. The Nigerian-born Okwara has come quite a long way since flashing as a 228-pound freshman in 2016 to now, but he also has room to grow, too.
We love his fluid athleticism and loose hips, which regularly showed up on tape we watched. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder was named to The Athletic’s “Freaks List,” which clearly indicates that Okwara has NFL-caliber tools. What will ascend him to a higher draft platform will be becoming a better finisher; Okwara left too many sacks on the table last season, even as his ability to disrupt and generate pressure was undeniable.
Coming off an eight-sack, 12.5-TFL season, Okwara can solidify his draft stock by beefing up his production as one of the players Notre Dame opponents will be keying on. Losing Tillery, Coney, Tranquill and Love means Okwara will be thrust into a leadership position — he was named a preseason captain — although he also will have help from Kareem on what looks like a strong front.
RB Jafar Armstrong
The former wide receiver is going to be in a running back committee with Tony Jones, but he was the more productive player from a fantasy perspective in 2018 as a freshman. Armstrong averaged over five yards a carry and was second on the team with seven rushing touchdowns. If you’re going to draft a Notre Dame RB, make sure it’s Armstrong if both players are still on the board.
As we said above, the schedule is favorable for the Irish. Losses on the road to Georgia and Michigan cut the cushion on this over a little bit, but Notre Dame should be favored in every other game outside of the trip to Stanford. And depending on how the Cardinal plays this year, maybe even that one, too.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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