The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program had a resurgence in 2017. They put together head coach Brian Kelly’s third 10-win season in South Bend, made a bowl appearance, won their first bowl game since 2014, and brought the team back to national prominence. Every year the team is picked to be a contender for the College Football Playoff but they have missed out each year since it’s inception in 2014. They narrowly missed out in both 2015 and last year due to key late season losses.
The Associated Press released it’s annual preseason poll this week and the Irish came in ranked at No. 12. This doesn’t exactly make them favorites to reach the playoff but it puts them within striking distance. The Golden Domers once again have a schedule featuring their usual rivals, their annual mix of ACC opponents, and a couple of surprise teams in between. The Irish can’t afford more than two losses if they hope make the playoffs for the first time.
Here are five players that coach Kelly will be absolutely dependent on for his team to be successful again in 2018…..
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush–
He accounted for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air, and an additonal 804 yards with 14 scores on the ground. But it was his performances in road losses at Miami (FL) and Stanford that nearly saw him concede the starting job to Ian Book. But after working hard this offseason, and after a solid performance in Notre Dame’s spring game earlier this year, Wimbush has redeemed himself and is ready to take the reigns once again. Wimbush’s dual-threat abilities will give defenses fits, especially with one of the best offensive lines in the country blocking for him. The Irish need Wimbush to be at his best in order to make their first CFP appearance.
Senior wide receiver Myles Boykin–
The Chicago-area native only caught 12 passes last season and has only 18 total receptions for his career (334 career receiving yards, no touchdowns). This year he’ll have to be Wimbush’s favorite target as most of last year’s receivers entered this year’s NFL Draft. Boykin’s biggest moment came in last season’s Citrus Bowl where his one-handed touchdown catch in the fourth quarter saved the game for the Irish. He’ll need to have a few more similar moments to keep Notre Dame’s passing game going. He has the size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), the talent, and the potential to be the next great Fighting Irish wide receiver.
The entire Fighting Irish offensive line–
Yes you read that correctly…. After all, this particular unit has produced an astounding seven NFL draft picks since 2012. This is the one position in the Kelly era that has found staying power in the league. Potential NFL prospects for this season specifically are senior Alex Bars who can play both tackle and guard, and senior guard Sam Mustipher. Without the domination of this group, Notre Dame wouldn’t have had that seven-game winning streak last season in which they scored between 35 and 50 points in each game.
Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery–
In three seasons the 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound pass rusher went from an eager freshman who didn’t quite know how to use his size, to one of the most scouted defensive lineman in the country. As he’s developed his skill and technique over time, he’s collected 105 career tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for loss, 5 1/2 career sacks, and a forced fumble. As a senior he’ll be called upon to be a leader of this team. And with the quality of opponents that the Irish will be facing this year, they’ll need every tackle and sack that they can get out of him.
The entire Notre Dame secondary-
Here is another part of this team that must be credited as a whole. In the Kelly era, the Irish have played against many high-octane, high-scoring offenses. This leaves the Golden Domers in pass coverage more often than not, and as such they are very active when it comes to getting to the football. So active that the Fighting Irish defensive backs combined for 290 total tackles, six tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks, nine interceptions, 40 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns in 2017.
Even better news for this group is that this is the only unit on the team -aside from quarterbacks- that returns almost every player from last year’s squad. The 2018 secondary will be led by senior cornerback Julian Love, a Preseason All-American who’s eager to take on a leadership role and help push this team to the next level. And with Notre Dame undertaking yet another schedule full of offensive savvy teams, Love and company will be busy this fall.
Notre Dame is the best chance that the Chicago-area has of sending a team to the College Football Playoff this season.