Three Camp Questions For The Notre Dame Offense

Bryan Driskell

Notre Dame kicks off fall camp today, officially starting their campaign for another College Football Playoff berth. It will also be the program’s first in a conference, as Notre Dame will be playing in the ACC this fall.

With camp kicking off there are a number of key questions that I will be keeping my eye on. How those questions get answered will have a significant impact on how the 2020 season will play out on the field.

Let's start with the three biggest questions on offense.

Question #1 — How will the running back depth chart shake out?

Tony Jones Jr. was the only runner that really did much damage last season, and now he’s trying to earn a spot in the NFL. Behind him were young players with little experience and a checkered injury history. Notre Dame tried to replace Jones with Stanford transfer Trevor Speights, but Speights saw his Irish career end before it began.

There are far more questions than answers at running back as camp kicks off.

But there is also talent returning. It’s not talent that is going to make you think they are on the same level as Clemson or Ohio State, but talent that is good enough to do damage behind what should be a very good offensive line (see below). Notre Dame needs at least two backs to emerge as legit every-down players and at least one dual-threat weapon.

Can Jafar Armstrong stay healthy and find his 2018 groove? Can C’Bo Flemister and/or Jahmir Smith become a key figure in the rotation? Can Kyren Williams use a season of experience to vault up the depth chart? Will Chris Tyree get a chance to use his elite speed to make plays?

The more of those questions that are answered positively the better this unit will be.

Question #2 — Can the wide receivers stay healthy?

Despite the injury to Kevin Austin there is still plenty of talent coming back at the wide receiver position. Javon McKinley is a talented player that showed flashes last season, juniors Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III bring big-play ability to the game, transfer Ben Skowronek is a veteran with over 100 career catches and the freshman class is loaded. I didn’t even mention players like Joe Wilkins Jr., Micah Jones and Kendall Abdur-Rahman, who also bring skill to the roster.

Notre Dame has plenty of weapons, but a big issue is many of the players that I just mentioned have struggled to stay healthy. The biggest question at the position heading into camp is can players like McKinley, Lenzy, Keys and Wilkins stay healthy for a full season, something none of them have been able to do yet. Can Skowronek overcome his season-ending injury and regain his form?

At least one player from this group and at least one tight end must step up and become big-time, go-to players. If this unit stays relatively healthy, beyond the Austin injury, I have confidence Notre Dame will get excellent play from the group and a go-to player - or two - will emerge. But if the injury history that has plagued many at the position continues the offense will struggle to consistently get the production and impact needed to fuel an elite offense.

Question #3 — Can the offensive line be as good as advertised?

If Notre Dame is going to be a contender for the ACC Championship, and a CFP berth, the offensive line will have to be the driving force. There is plenty of talent at the position, and with 114 career starts coming back it’s one of the most experienced lines in Notre Dame history.

The unit showed flashes last season, but consistency and good performances in big moments were not up to par. Struggles in the run game also held this unit, and the offense, back when it mattered most. That cannot be the case in 2020, and Notre Dame has all the ingredients to be a dominant offensive line this fall.

A dominant offensive line makes quarterback Ian Book better. A dominant offensive line allows the backs to get the most out of their ability. A dominant offensive line allows Notre Dame to control the tempo of every game, whether that means speeding up or eating up clock.

This is a show-me year for line coach Jeff Quinn. He has everything he needs to put out a great line week after week in an attempt to silence critics, like yours truly. The addition of graduate assistant Chris Watt should provide a big boost, and if the rumors I heard about the workouts this summer are true, this group should be more than prepared to play at a high level.

If they do, the 2020 offensive will likely be special, but now the unit has to prove it.

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Comments (8)
No. 1-5
hank21usa
hank21usa

The OL needs to take a step forward and be elite to make the playoff. Especially with the lack of talent in the RB room.

chamgel
chamgel

The OL and Book are the key for me. They’ve been my two biggest questions this offseason. Can the oline become an elite run blocking unit and can Book produce against better defenses. If those two things happen this offense is going to be very very difficult to stop...

I do agree about the RB and WR questions, but believe they’re #3 and 4 on the list of we’re talking about ND being a truly elite offense...

2 Replies

Bryan Driskell
Bryan Driskell

Editor

With Book, to be honest, I don't care what he does in fall camp. He could go 90% each day and it won't matter. What does he do against Clemson, what does he do against Pitt (assuming they have any good defenders left), what does he do in the CFP if they make it, etc. We've seen him shred in fall camp, so it's not really a camp question for me.

chamgel
chamgel

Gotcha... that makes sense, and I agree completely. It’s the same way I felt about last season. He had to play well against Georgia and Michigan, and he didn’t, and then not playing well against UVA, Louisville, and VT added to that.... but I agree, not something he can change our minds about during camp, have to see it on the big stage.

For the camp questions, RB is the big one for me. I think there is enough talented depth at WR to find a group that can step up, we may not have that alpha WR, but there is talent there to produce... at RB there are more questions right now than answers. Very very interested to watch that position battle this camp..

TxIrish
TxIrish

This starts and ends with the OL for me. A good OL makes everything else better.

There is a lot of positivity here about the addition of Chris Watt. I'm happy to. But I don't know how much we should pin our hopes on a new GA being able to turn things around.

Its hard for me to grade the OL last year. They were great in pass protection, but mediocre in the run game. Maybe 'good' overall? They could take several steps forward this fall, but it's a long way from where they played in 2019 to be considered 'great' or especially 'elite'. In fact, I think it's unrealistic to expect that much improvement in one year.

MDLambert
MDLambert

"...if the rumors I heard about the workouts this summer are true, this group should be more than prepared to play at a high level." This gives me the chills. I know how good this line can be when they pull their talent together.

WR should be interesting for us this year. Of course, Kevin Austin's injury was a huge blow to the WR's, I do agree that 2 of those guys could be go to guys. Of course, I think we are solid at TE and I think that could be a position as important as it was in 2019.

Running backs have always been a big question mark for me. Every single year. So used to them either getting hurt or RBs having one good year then going to the draft. I am very optimistic about this years group. I'm hoping Tyree can be that utility player in the backfield while Jafar (Or C'Bo) and Jahmir can be solid every down backs. This year, a healthy season is a successful season. And winning the ACC championship...

StrongNTrue
StrongNTrue

Nice article and the points are well taken.

The RB's are lacking in game experience but Jafar Armstrong was set to have an exceptional season this time last year---his electronic monitoring gear showed excellent speed and stamina and he was running with lower pad levels---then he had an abdominal tear that derailed that. The other backs showed some flashes and C'bo was a pleasant surprise who always ran hard. I think we could see more screens and pass catching from them. The OL will make some holes and I think they'll be fine.

Hope we get Kevin Austin back fast and healthy but we have some guys who have been in the system for awhile now. McKinley and Skowronek are mature and powerful guys---good receivers and solid run blockers. Avery Davis is a guy who has moved around and bit off of the radar but he runs good routes and has good hands (made clutch catches in game winning VT drive) and can even be used in a Jet Sweep. Keys-Wilkins-Lenzy are all speedy, dangerous guys to cover and tackle after the catch. Limited viewing so far, but Freshmen Watts and Johnson should at least play four games...maybe more. WR's/Slot guys should be good.

Per many ND sites, there has been a major retooling on the offensive side of the ball with a greater emphasis/commitment on running the ball-tweaking play calling-working as a unified team of Offensive coaches that along with what was mentioned for the dynamic OL workouts so far makes things look promising.

Rees-McNulty -Watt are all ex LA Charger guys so they better like each other and get along smoothly---and Lance Taylor worked for Stanford and Panthers who both run NFL schemes. Quinn knows a lot and has some good ideas.

So if all of these guys working together with a great core OL group/Top 5 Unit can't figure out how to scheme and set up some run plays----then we are in serious trouble because things must be horribly broken. It's FUBAR.

McNulty while at the Chargers used his TE's well...and when ND used their 2-3 TE sets---they ran the ball pretty darn well. They just need to work out all of the details and schemes and it may take a bit of time but they'll get there. Perseverance and consistency will pay off once the kinks get buffed out.

ND with a balance running and passing scheme will be a nightmare for even the elite opponents. I think ND will handle the elite defenses/DC Guru's better with the combined brain trust they are supposedly using to put together game plans and make in game adjustments on the fly and keep attacking and compensating for what DC's throw at them. They have the talent and mature QB to finally pull that off.