As we get set to turn the calendar to March the focus on the 2021 Notre Dame football team begins to come into picture. March means the beginning of spring practice, which means we get our first look at what the 2021 version of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will look like.
We won't have all the answers about this team until games start in the fall, but the spring provides us with a look at the foundation of what this team will look like. Any changes that are to be made will begin this spring.
Heading into spring ball there are five very important questions on both sides of the ball, and how those questions get answered will go a very, very long way towards determining just how good the Fighting Irish will be on 2021.
The offense suffered the most personnel losses, and it has even bigger questions at this point. Here are the five questions that are most important on that side of the ball, and if we head into the fall feeling good about these questions the Irish could not only overcome those personnel losses, they could be even better as an offense in 2021.
1. Will Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees open up the offense?
Notre Dame simply cannot keep doing what it has been doing on offense. Are there strong foundational principles already in place? Of course, and there's plenty to build upon, but if Notre Dame wants to truly compete for a championship its offense must make dramatic improvements, and those won't happen without making some philosophical changes.
Pushing the tempo, RPOs, enhancing the pass game and improving the perimeter game are all musts for Notre Dame. We'll find out this spring if Notre Dame's offensive staff and its head coach recognize the need for this and begin to implement those changes.
2. How will the offensive line shake out, and will it continue to play well?
There are two questions built into one here. First, who plays where and who ends up in the starting lineup? On day one I would expect the offensive line to look like this, left to right: Jarrett Patterson (if healthy), Dillan Gibbons, Zeke Correll, John Dirksen, Joshua Lugg.
I'll be surprised if it still looks the same way when we come out of the spring, and I expect a number of fierce position battles to be raged, but who will be part of those battles? Will a tackle like Andrew Kristofic or Quinn Carroll move inside to compete? Will younger players like Michael Carmody, Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler push for time? We'll start to get those answers this spring.
Once the lineup starts to come into sight we must then find out if the offensive line will still play at a high level. Making the above philosophical changes will take pressure off the line, and no one is expecting the line to be as good as it was in 2020, but it still needs to be really good in 2021.
3. Will the quarterback position make more plays in the pass game?
I'm not as concerned with who starts at quarterback as I am about how well whoever starts plays this season. I really like the potential of Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan to thrive in the Notre Dame offense, especially if it makes the much-needed philosophical changes. I believe Drew Pyne could run the offense at a high level, Brendon Clark is athletic and has a big arm, and Tyler Buchner is an exceptional talent.
Whoever wins the job will be a talented quarterback, of that I have no doubt, but Notre Dame needs its quarterback to play much better than it has the last four seasons, especially in the pass game. This spring we'll get a chance to see if the quarterbacks on the roster are capable of getting that done, no matter who wins the job.
Ideally, one quarterback will be head and shoulders above the rest so that he can cement himself as the starter as early as possible.
4. Who steps up at wide receiver?
For the fourth straight season the Notre Dame offense must find a new go-to receiver. In the previous four seasons a top dog has emerged, with Miles Boykin seizing that role in 2018, Chase Claypool emerging as a dominant force in 2019 and Javon McKinley was outstanding whenever he was given the chance to be so in 2020.
So who will that be in 2021? Beyond that, how good will the entire depth chart be, because Notre Dame needs to have more than just one top-talent at wideout if the offense is going to be elite.
I expect Avery Davis to become an even greater focal point of the offense, but I don't see him as a WR1 type of player. Even if he is, Davis will need help.
There are health questions about Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy. Notre Dame needs them healthy and playing to their potential, but can they do that? Can sophomores Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts mature their games and seize hold of playmaking roles? Will Lawrence Keys III get back on track? Can Joe Wilkins Jr. make a big jump, and can freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. force his way onto the field?
The more of those questions that get answered in positive fashion the better this unit will be, and the better this unit performs the better chance we see the offense explode in 2021.
5. Where will the leadership come from?
Notre Dame lost a pair of captains from its offensive line, including two-time captain Robert Hainsey. As critical as I have been of Ian Book as a quarterback, one area where I felt he thrived the last two seasons was as a leader.
Notre Dame has a significant leadership void right now, and a player I consider to fill that void is Jarrett Patterson, but he'll be limited this spring.
I'm curious to see what kind of leadership role Davis plays this spring, and there is no doubt running back Kyren Williams will be the emotional leader of the offense. But who else steps up at each position to provide leadership from the player level?
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