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2019 Countdown Q&A - Week 1, Notre Dame

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 27 Navy v Notre Dame Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The college football season is finally upon us. The air is more crisp, the leaves are more orange, and the separation anxiety between myself and my family is looming. Honestly, it kind of snuck up on me this year, wish someone would have spent some time counting down the days until the season started or something. Maybe next year. Anyway, welcome all to another season of me throwing out questions that rival the best interviewers in the business, and digging down deep into the soul of the opposing writer on a weekly basis. Frankly, if they escape without some type of emotional scar I haven’t done my job.

This week I got to talk with Patrick Sullivan over at ‘One Foot down’ about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. I actually returned the favor over at ‘One Foot Down’ earlier this week, and you can check out my answers to those questions here. We spent all summer focused on our own team and the challenges we are facing internally, but now is the time to learn about the Top 10 team from South Bend, IN.

Notre Dame seems to always have lofty expectations coming into each and every season, but I guess that’s what tradition and success over multiple decades get you. The Fighting Irish had a solid season in 2018 but it came to a disappointing end in the first round of the CFP. Do they have the leprechauns to get back there in 2019?

Even though the Irish have three different leprechauns for 2019 -- including the first ever female Leprechaun -- I don’t think it’s going to be enough to get ND back to the CFP. Thanks for bringing up that disappointing end, though – I have such fond memories of Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins making me weep openly in the upper deck of AT&T Stadium.

Of course, that’s not to say Notre Dame COULDN’T make it back. College football is notoriously weird and unpredictable, and the Irish do have All-American talent at defensive end (Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem), safety (Alohi Gilman), and offensive line (Tommy Kraemer). Add in a high-floor QB like Ian Book, a freak #1 WR in Chase Claypool (6-4/230, 50 rec, 639 yds, 4 TD in 2018), solid starting running backs, and lots of potential at cornerback and linebacker, and maybe they could do it if some randomness works out in their favor.

However, considering all that, there are major holes left by departures from last season’s 12-1 team that are big ole question marks in 2019. DT Jerry Tillery was a force in the middle of the defensive line (5 QBH, 8 sacks, 3 FF), and the timeshare of tackles who will hope to replace his production are young and unproven. Speaking of unproven, the Irish are replacing Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney at linebacker (209 tackles, 7.5 sacks between them), and despite the new guys getting solid reviews from camp, that means nothing once the season actually begins. All-American corner Julian Love (63 tackles, 16 passes defended) moved on to the NFL as well, and a mix of youth and oft-injured veterans will hope to fill in for him.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Notre Dame at USC
Chase Claypool don’t play around
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offensively, the Irish lost Dexter Williams at running back (995 yds, 6.3 ypc, 12 TD in just nine games last year), 2018’s top receiver in Miles Boykin (59 rec, 872 yds, 8 TD), and senior starting tight end Alize Mack. The Boykin and Mack losses are especially significant given the fact that the Irish have already had two starters – TE Cole Kmet and WR Michael Young – go down with broken collarbones this summer, meaning they will be out until probably mid/late September and mid/late October, respectively.

Depth questions at running back and cornerback add cause for concern, and that’s before considering the unthinkable of Book going down and sophomore Phil Jurkovec having to take the reins (hold me).

So, summing all that up, I think ND will have a very good year and compete with everyone on the schedule based on their returning talent, save for Georgia, whose size up front seems tailor-made to demolish the weakened middle of the Irish defense with the losses of Tillery, Tranquill, and Coney. But I think it’s unlikely they manage to defeat everyone except Georgia to go 11-1, which might be their only true, feasible route to the Playoff (along with some help from others).

The starting QB for Notre Dame will more than likely be the scholar, Ian Book. What’s the story on this guy? Get, it? What’s the story. Sorry, I guess I should have asked how he reads his progressions. In all seriousness though, how is the final chapter of his collegiate career going to play out? Ok, I’m done now. This guy good, or what?

Abridged version: He is indeed very good.

However, let me give you the unabridged version, which should provide a much greater volume of information about Ian Book. To me Tome, that’s what you’re looking to check out and reference heading into this match-up.

Ian Book enjoyed a nice little prologue to 2019 with his performance last season. The Irish were bound to mediocrity on offense with Brandon Wimbush at QB, and so despite a 3-0 record at the time, Brian Kelly moved foreword with the novel idea of changing quarterbacks with an undefeated record in order to turn the page and drive better performance.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Notre Dame at USC
Ian Book dropping dimes
Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a result, the offense flourished, as Book showed a lot of spine in jumping in, putting his own imprint on the offense, and displaying his past dedication to preparing for this moment with how clear it was he had a library of knowledge on how to run the offense. He was the textbook QB to run offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, inking strong numbers in 9 games as starter: 2,628 yards, 68% completion, 19 TD, 7 INT, 154.0 QB rating, 280 rushing yards, 4 rushing TD.

To say he is or was perfect, though, would obviously be fiction. Book is the type to struggle with deep balls considering he is much more of a short/medium-distance passer, and in a couple games it felt like he had briefly become a serial interception-thrower, making some boneheaded decisions to fit the ball into tight windows.

However, Irish fans are hoping some of those issues are history after an offseason as undisputed QB1, and that Book’s epilogue to 2018 involves an encyclopedic understanding of how to throw more accurate deep balls and how to eliminate the turnovers and truly make Irish receivers a hardcover for opposing DBs.

I, for one, am excited for the third in this trilogy of Ian Book seasons (he redshirted in 2016), and although he’ll never be a Trevor Lawrence or Tua Tagovailoa out there, I expect we will see a lot of literature being published by the media about how reliable he is in 2019 at driving a relatively young offense to strong success and critical acclaim.

On the defensive side of the ball Notre Dame brings back some monsters up front who practically lived in the back field last year. I begrudgingly watched a couple Notre Dame games in 2018 and found myself fearing for my own life and the life of my family when Julian Okwara came off the edge. Assuming he’ll continue to be a problem for teams in 2019, who else should force the Cards to keep their head on a swivel?

First of all, you’re incredibly correct to be afraid of Julian Okwara. He is a destroyer of souls (21 QBH, 8 sacks) and actually has room for improvement in terms of finishing his pass rushes, meaning the destruction he leaves in his wake could end up rated R for intense, graphic violence this year (last year I’d say it was an edgy PG-13).

But defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s squad has a few other big-time guys Louisville needs to watch out for, starting with the defensive end opposite Okwara, Khalid Kareem. Kareem finished 2018 with 8 QBH and 4.5 sacks, and instead of being a long, fast pass rusher like Okwara, is stronger and more compact and able to bully guys a bit more. If both Louisville tackles aren’t up for a challenge on Monday night, Jawon Pass is going to be either constantly dumping off check-downs immediately after receiving the snap, or wishing his name was actually Jawon Run, considering that’s what he will keep having to do (THAT WAS A HORRIBLE PUN AND I DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR IT).

Daelin Hayes is a former 5-star defensive end who backs up Okwara and would likely start for 90% of programs, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji is a guy who’s developed a ton over his first 3 years and was the only one of this group to sack Trevor Lawrence back in December. He’ll be an occasional factor, for sure.

Other guys who pack a punch – safety Alohi Gilman is an All-American caliber, Flyin’ Hawaiian kind of guy who’s aggressive and does NOT shy away from contact (94 tackles, 2 FF in 2018). Add in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, an apparent freak athlete starting his first-ever game at the Rover linebacker/safety hybrid position, and those two will likely be roaming sideline-to-sideline looking to get heavily involved in stuffing Louisville ball carriers.

How much does Brian VanGorder suck?

He’s a bad defensive coordinator. I think that much has become crystal clear over the years.

However, I cannot hate him completely, for the below reasons:

  • His failure made Brian Kelly retool his staff and culture and program heading into 2017 and led to the 2017/2018 record of 22-4 that included a CFP appearance, a Citrus Bowl win over LSU, and regular season wins over Michigan, Stanford, USC (x2), NC State, Michigan State, and at Virginia Tech
  • He doesn’t necessarily seem like a horrible person (and if he is, please let me remain ignorant and blissful)
  • He has at times closely resembled one of the greatest characters in cinema history (Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite)
  • He gave us this amazing GIF amongst an Irish shellacking of Michigan in 2014
  • He sired one of my favorite walk-on-ND-QB-turned-finalist-for-Holder-of-the-Year-turned-starting-Youngstown-State-QBs of all-time, Montgomery VanGorder, whom I affectionately call “Monty VG” and who follows me on Twitter for some reason (love you man!)

So, I’m incredibly glad he’s got nothing to do with Notre Dame football anymore (NEVER LEAVE US, CLARK LEA), and I’m sure you all are too, but I can’t say becoming familiar with BVG has been completely horrible.

I bet you guys get questions about Rudy all the time. I like to think outside the box, not your typical Q&A guy, like to hit you with one from left field to see where your head is at. The year is 1996, and a lesser known high school athlete named Quasimodo walks on at his favorite school, Notre Dame. You’re the head ball coach, what position is Quasi playing for you?

This is an exceptional question, and I have a very quick, definitive answer.

Quasimodo is playing fullback on my football team, FOR SURE. His hunched back means a low center of gravity, and also means he’s in a perpetual “full steam ahead” running/blocking stance. He can lead the way for a tailback through a hole with his hunchback clearing all incoming linebackers out, or he can utilize that hunchback to truck-stick hunchback-stick any unlucky defensive backs hoping to bring him down at the second level.

Also, his All-American performance at fullback means the 1996 Irish fare much better than 8-3, Lou Holtz is perhaps never pushed out (how you gonna push out a coach who just rode a freshman Heisman winner at fullback to a national title?), and Notre Dame fans never have to suffer through a stretch of Bob Davie, George O’Leary’s Resume Fraud, Ty Willingham’s Refusal to Recruit, and Charlie Weis’ Contract. That sounds HEAVENLY.

Notre Dame has twelve regular season games this year. If I asked you to rank your level of anxiety for each game on a scale of 1-12, with 1 being the most anxious, where does the Louisville game rank?

Had to rank all of them for you instead of just the Cardinals, mostly for my own benefit but also because it will be fun to see if I offend UL fans based on where I rank Louisville compared to others:

  1. Georgia – I don’t need to explain this
  2. Michigan – despite the fact I think the Wolverines are, per usual, super-frauds, I think they’re the second-most-talented team on the schedule, and this game is in Ann Arbor
  3. Stanford – Speaking of road games, Brian Kelly has never won at Stanford
  4. Virginia – they’re getting a lot of hype as an up-and-coming team. Bronco Mendenhall is too good of a name not to inspire a little anxiety about losing to him
  5. USC – still have some USC talent, even if they stink
  6. Virginia Tech – Bud Foster’s last season, all bets are off
  7. Louisville – new coaching staff, solid talent, first game of the year…if it weren’t for the 2-10 season last year this would certainly be higher on the list
  8. Navy – the triple option would be ranked higher if not for Navy falling off in recent years. Army would be roughly 4th on my list right now if this were them instead of the Midshipmen
  9. Boston College – AJ Dillon is a man, the rest of the team are “dudes” and do not scare me
  10. Duke - nope
  11. Bowling Green – LMAO BRIAN VANGORDER
  12. New Mexico – LMAO BOB DAVIE, plus an apparent 4-QB system???!?

Notre Dame at the time of this post is a 20.5pt favorite heading into Monday night. Sure, the Golden Domers are a Top 10 team, sure Louisville is coming off a 2-10 season, but I think Vegas is forgetting that Notre Dame has NEVER, like ever, in the history of the program, beat Louisville. Pretty telling stat if you ask me. Is this the year the Irish finally get over the hump after decades and decades of not being able to tame the bird?!

Can’t argue with advanced analytics like that -- I’m certainly worried about the Irish being unable to overcome years of history here (plus 2014 still haunts me, that game was part of a horrible skid wherein Notre Dame also lost to Northwestern at home and at USC by 35 points).

However, I do believe this is the year the Irish finally cage the Cardinals. With that said, I think ND just BARELY covers, because it’s a road game, Satterfield’s team and the stadium will come out with a lot of energy and make it interesting early, and the Irish will need to shake off a little rust and break in some new guys as the game develops.

By the final whistle, though, Book and the offensive line, along with Okwara and the pass rush, will have worn UL down and will have ultimately won this one to the tune of something like 38-17 (after a close halftime score of something like 17-10 or 21-10, I think).

***

Big thank you to Pat for his time and well thought out answers. I would also play Quasi at FB because that is the only correct answer. Would have to shut this thing down if he said otherwise. If you enjoyed this feel free to give Pat a follow (@psully226) or ‘One Foot down’ a follow (@OneFootDown) for all your Notre Dame needs. I’m looking for the Cards to show some energy, motivation, and to come out healthy. If they happen make Brian Kelly cry on the sidelines....I’m down for that too.