Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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32 PRESEASON 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL P erception and statistical re- ality have a contentious re- lationship regarding Notre Dame's 2019 offense. A drive-by glance at some num- bers shows last year's Irish offense was Brian Kelly's best. It aver- aged 36.8 points per game, within a point of the school record. Not since 2006 had an Irish quarterback tossed 30 touchdown passes. Notre Dame had a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since 2015 and ranked in the top 30 in yards per rush for the fourth time since 2010. Yet the offense evoked consterna- tion for much of the season, as if the eye test didn't match the numbers. The run-game operation went up-and-down and particularly struggled in short-yardage situa- tions. Quarterback Ian Book's first two months of the season were a bumpy ride with questions of regression atwitter. His comple- tion percentage dipped by eight points and his yards per attempt dropped by 0.8. Coordinator Chip Long's dismissal at the end of the regular season seemed to indicate some discord on staff. Notre Dame handed the controls to 28-year-old Tommy Rees, the former Kelly signal-caller who spent the last three years as the Irish quarterbacks coach. He has some intriguing pieces with which to work. Book is Notre Dame's first three- year starting quarterback since Jimmy Clausen. The offensive line has the most returning starts in team history. The receiver group is unproven but deep in talent. The freshman class has three top-80 pass catchers that Kelly has hinted could play this year. The floor feels high. But how high is the ceiling? The following three areas will go a long way in helping determine it. 1. RUNNING INTO ROLES Even after a year of nagging inju- ries that led to averaging 2.7 yards on 46 carries, senior Jafar Armstrong was seen as the top option at running back heading into the spring. But 14 spring practices never happened, de- priving him of the chance to solidify the job. And now, it appears two high- upside underclassmen are charging hard for a share of the carries. Kelly touted freshman Chris Tyree in his first two media availabilities of training camp, a welcomed sound bite for Fighting Irish fans. "He's not going to get 30 carries [in a game], but he's going to play as a freshman," Kelly said. "He has been impressive." With practice closed, no one out- side of the team can back up the ex- citement. Tyree's physical readiness is an encouraging sign, though. He is listed at 179 pounds, but Kelly says Tyree is around 190. No one doubted the former top-100 re- cruit has home-run ability and speed. The question was his frame, particularly after a high school senior campaign in which an injury limited him to only 71 carries. One reason to temper expecta- tions, for now, is the lessons of sophomore Kyren Williams' sum- mer 2019 hype. Kelly, running backs coach Lance Taylor and Long praised his ability to absorb information as a true freshman. But it never materialized into a season-long role. Williams had five offensive touches in two games and took a redshirt. The college stage was a bit too much too fast. A year, apparently, makes a big difference. "He came in last year as a fresh- man, and there was a big tran- sition, especially at the running back position," Kelly said. "His commitment in the offseason has put him in a position where he's what we thought he would be. "He can catch the football, he has really good vision and escap- ability, he's not afraid to block or run the ball between the tackles. He's going to be a key piece for us moving into the season." Whatever happens with the oth- ers, it's unlikely Armstrong is pushed completely from the rotation. He's a bruiser at 220 pounds, and he has rushing and receiving skills. He has yet to reveal lead-back ability, though, and the door is open for someone to prove he can take the position to another level. The backs will need some help, too. Notre Dame's offensive line, with five returning starters, has been championed as the nation's best. To claim that title at season's end, the unit must improve its run blocking from solid to top-tier. Notre Dame's yards per carry aver- age was fine, but the Irish were 99th nationally in first down percentage During training camp, head coach Brian Kelly said this of his fifth-year senior quarterback: "He's going to have a great year. There's no doubt in my mind we're going to see the best version of Ian Book this fall." PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL REACHING HIGHER Notre Dame has the tools for a strong offense — and possibly an elite one

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