Notre Dame football is a perfect 7-0. Let’s take a look at how each position group has performed thus far on the offensive side of the ball.
As the Irish enter a much needed bye week, what better time to reflect on how Notre Dame has arrived to this point. Seven straight wins, three victories over Top-25 teams, and after the bye week is currently ranked the No. 3 team in the country.
Not too bad.
A large factor to this team’s success has obviously been the defense. They have been the constant week-in and week-out and have bailed Notre Dame out of some not-so-ideal situations. The offense, on the other hand, has truly been a roller coaster this season. It has been a strange mix of quarterback controversy, big plays, questionable play calling, injuries, and looking unstoppable one week and incompetent the next.
Regardless, Notre Dame has scored enough points in every game to come out on top. There’s certainly room for improvement, and the offense will need to show it if they want to finish the season 12-0 with a chance at the College Football Playoff.
As it stands right now, Notre Dame’s national offensive ranks are as follows (out of 130 FBS 1-A teams):
- Total Offense: 22nd (2,994 yards)
- Yards/Game: 49th (428 yards)
- Passing Yards/Game: 54th (248.6 yards)
- Rushing Yards/Game: 60th (179.1 yards)
- Points/Game: 47th (32.6 points)
- Offensive Efficiency: 42nd (62.8)
These numbers aren’t very surprising, especially considering the struggles the offense had early in the season and against Pittsburgh. Numbers don’t always paint the full picture, however. It comes down to the play of the athletes and the impact they make on and off the stat sheet.
Here’s a look at how each position group has played so far through the first seven games.
I could break this grade up into two separate categories, but that’s not how this works. Looking at the beginning of the season, there was little reason to believe Wimbush shouldn’t have been the starter. Though he had his struggles last season, he showed improvement this offseason and was the experienced veteran who still helped lead the Irish to a ten win season the year prior.
Unfortunately, the same issues carried over into this season, and Wimbush didn’t have the same running game as last season to lean on. He had one touchdown, four interceptions, and a struggling offense after the first three weeks, which was the final straw for Brian Kelly, who benched Wimbush for Ian Book.
It is no question that the gutsy call to replace Brandon Wimbush with Ian Book at quarterback kickstarted the offense, and their ceiling certainly looks to be much higher with him commanding the huddle.
Book seemed virtually unstoppable against Wake Forest, Stanford, and for the most part against Virginia Tech. He struggled against Pittsburgh and never seemed comfortable, choosing to scramble and try to make a play rather than keep on his reads and deliver the ball. Regardless, Book has breathed a some fresh air into the offense, especially the passing game. As I am typing this article, Book has the highest completion percentage of any starting quarterback in the nation. Even with the shaky performance against Pittsburgh, Book is the right guy for this offense and gives the Irish the best chance moving forward.
If I did grade them separately, Wimbush would get a C- for his first three games and Book would get a solid A. Averaging that out this position group gets a respectable B.
Position Group Grade: B
The offensive line was somewhat of a question mark coming into the season. There was little doubt the front five wouldn’t be one of the best in the country, but there were obvious concerns about the drop off in production after losing Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to the NFL.
The line had no cupcake to kick off the season, as they faced one of the top defenses in the country against Michigan. For the most part, they held their own as Notre Dame found some success on the ground and Wimbush stayed relatively protected in the passing game. The stat sheet won’t show it but Wimbush certainly helped bail the line out on a few plays with his athleticism and scrambling ability. Since then, the offensive line has been a bit of a roller coaster. They struggled to open up running lanes and protect Wimbush against Ball State and had similar issues last week versus Pittsburgh. On the other hand, they dominated Wake Forest, Stanford, and Virginia Tech.
First year starter Liam Eichenberg struggled to start the season and has had some rough moments in pass protection, but overall has settled into the left tackle position nicely as the season has progressed. The loss of All-American guard Alex Bars against Stanford to a knee injury was certainly the biggest blow to this position group and entire offense in general. Since then we’ve seen a rotation of senior Trevor Ruhland and sophomore Aaron Banks at the left guard position.
Though it is hard to match the production of last year’s offensive line, outside of Virginia Tech, there hasn’t been that game breaking home run play in the run game that we saw time and time again last season. Regardless, this unit is getting the job done for the most part, and will be relied on heavily as the season moves on.
The talent is still there and this group is still the backbone and workhorse of this offense. All things considered they’ve done a solid job in the trenches.
Position Group Grade: B
Similar to the offensive line, this is another position group that might have graded higher had players not missed time due to injury or suspension.
Through the first four games of the season with Dexter Williams sidelined from an unofficial suspension, we saw a true running back by committee system. Jafar Armstrong, Tony Jones Jr, and Avery Davis were all key contributors and provided their own strengths to the offense. Armstrong and Jones Jr. carried the bulk of the workload in the beginning of the season with Davis seeing the field occasionally in positional situations. These three were more than serviceable and gave the offense some variety, fresh legs, and mismatches in the passing game. However, there was no home run hitter. No “take a routine handoff in the middle of the second quarter and take it the distance” kinda guy.
Enter Dexter Williams.
Williams literally burst onto the scene in his first game back from suspension against Stanford. He took his first touch of the season to the house and set the tone for the rest of the game. The next week he added a 97-yard touchdown run as well against Virginia Tech. In his first two games back he had over 330 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns.
The scary part about this position group is we haven’t seen what they can do fully healthy. Armstrong has been sidelined with a knee infection since Stanford, but is expected to return versus Navy. Armstrong, Williams, Jones Jr, and the occasional Avery Davis will be a flat out problem for defenses the rest of the season. Their production has been a key part to this season’s success and they will only get better.
Position Group Grade: B+
Possibly the biggest x-factors for this offense all season has been the tight ends. This position group might not be the most notable, but they have been consistent and provided big plays when the offense has needed it – especially in the red zone.
My favorite aspect of the tight ends is between the three – Alize Mack, Nic Weishar, and Cole Kmet – they are all capable of making a play in the passing game or adding run support for the ground game. Combined, Mack, Weishar, and Kmet have 34 receptions for 312 yards and three scores. Much to the relief of Irish fans, Mack looks to be living up to his potential thus far and has accounted for 24 of those catches for 240 yards and a score.
The best example of the impact these three can have on a game is looking at the Stanford game. Cole Kmet snagged a contested pass on 4th and short early in the game which led to a red zone score by Nic Weishar, and lastly Mack put the nail in the coffin with a 35-yard touchdown late in the game.
Being red zone threats, consistent receivers, and solid blockers are all traits that Notre Dame tight ends have hung their hat on for years, and these three combine to check all those boxes. This position group has been great for this offense all season and I don’t expect that to change moving forward.
Position Group Grade: A-
I would say this position group had the most hype coming into the season, at least on the offensive side of the ball. After only losing Equineamous St. Brown to the draft, the Irish returned all their starters or contributions from a season ago. This group has the size and physicality in Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, and the speedy slot and possession receivers in Chris Finke and Michael Young.
Whether it be play calling or poor quarterback play, this group struggled early in the season. Outside of Chris Finke’s incredible touchdown catch against Michigan, the big play in the passing game was nonexistent through the first three weeks. It wasn’t solely on the play of Wimbush. Claypool and Boykin were not winning any one-on-one battles and players were failing to create separation.
Since the Wake Forest game and the switch to Ian Book at quarterback, the passing game has had a complete makeover. Chris Finke has emerged as a true slot receiver and Claypool is starting to find his rhythm – scoring in three of his last four games. Outside of his huge play against Wake Forest, Michael Young has yet to make a huge impact in the passing game and it would be nice to see him more involved. Miles Boykin has been the most consistent receiver, with two 100-yard receiving games so far this season and hauling in four touchdown grabs over the last three weeks.
Overall, I think this position group suffered from an off-season media hype hangover. Boykin’s one-hand catch against LSU was the lasting image of everyone through the offseason, and it translated to expectations that might not have been fair. This is still an extremely talented group that I don’t believe has reached its ceiling. With the improved quarterback play and more emphasis on the passing game, these guys could make some noise the rest of the season.
Position Group Grade: B-