Notre Dame’s worst season in seven under coach Brian Kelly was a boon for the legion of fans that root against the most polarizing team in the country.
The Notre-Dame-went-4-and-8 memes have been flowing ever since.
Safe to say there is not a team in the country more eager to bury the memories of 2016 than Notre Dame.
“It’s a new year and it brings new opportunities,” running back Josh Adams said. “We have a lot of guys in that room that want to prove a lot of things to a lot of people, including themselves.”
Kelly orchestrated an offseason coaching staff overhaul and attitude adjustment that he hopes will produce a major turnaround and solidify his job status.
On the offensive side, Kelly claims he has finally found in former Memphis coordinator Chip Long an assistant he can truly entrust with calling the plays. Maybe more important than Kelly’s trust, Long appears to have plenty of talent with which to work.
Adams is a 225-pound junior who has averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his career. The offensive line features two of the best NFL prospects in the country in tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson. Equanimeous St. Brown leads a deep group of receivers that includes talented tight end Alize Mack. All of this should give highly touted quarterback Brandon Wimbush plenty of opportunity for success in his first season as starter.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko, hired away from Wake Forest, is not quite so lucky.
The Fighting Irish are thin on the defensive line and in need of improvement at safety. Notre Dame’s defensive flailed early last season and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired after four games.
“We were going from schemes to fundamentals on defense. We were a heavy scheme team. Then when I got over and took over the defense with (linebacker coach) Mike Elston, we went back to fundamentals and we saw a great change in our success rate on defense,” Kelly said. “So I was looking for somebody who was going to really focus on the fundamentals on defense. That’s Mike Elko.”
Some things to know about the Fighting Irish in a pivotal year for Kelly:
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
The Fighting Irish ranked 103rd in the country last season in tackles for loss at 5.08 per game. That needs to change, and Elko’s recent results suggest it will. Wake Forest ranked 24th in the country last season with 7.23 tackles for loss per game, a dramatic improvement from 2015, when it was a middling 66th.
Safety Drue Tranquill, who will man the hybrid safety/linebacker rover position, could thrive in Elko’s system. Tranquill was second on the team in total tackles last season with 79, but only two came behind the line. Tranquill’s strength is run support and Elko’s system should give him more opportunities to get in the backfield.
NEW STARTER, BUT NOT NEW
New starting quarterbacks always come with cautious optimism. The Irish and their fans have understandably high hopes for Wimbush, a four-star recruit who has mostly watched and learned the last two seasons. Outwardly, Wimbush exudes self-assuredness and the polish of veteran.
“I think when that first unit goes out there there is clearly a confidence level that everybody has with him,” Kelly said.
Wimbush seems well equipped to handle being the face of the team, but the scrutiny that comes with being Notre Dame’s quarterback can be intense.
Getting off to a good start would help alleviate some pressure on Kelly. The Fighting Irish open at home against Temple on Sept. 2 and host Georgia in Week 2. In all, Notre Dame faces 11 teams that reached the postseason last year. The schedule in the first half of the season appears more manageable since Southern California, Miami and Stanford all come later.
The Irish have enough offensive talent to flip last year’s record to 8-4 and keep Kelly from being fired.