The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, July 30, 2019 1:00 am

Irish have some huge holes to fill

Notre Dame looks to again be in contention for CFP

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

When Notre Dame opened its fall camp before the 2018 season, linebacker and Fort Wayne native Drue Tranquill made it very clear where the Irish had set the bar for themselves.

“This is Notre Dame football, (a national championship) has to be tangible,” he said. “That's what we do, that's the tradition of this place. This year will be the 30th year since we won the championship in 1988, and that's unacceptable here. That's gotta be the goal, that's gotta be the standard.”

The 2018 Irish got within striking distance of that elusive national championship and added another undefeated regular season to the program's legacy but ultimately came up short of their lofty goal.

A year later, the 2019 team faces the same pressures to end the national title drought and continue Notre Dame's ascension back into the ranks of college football's annually elite.

The Irish begin their march back to the College Football Playoff in less than a week, with the opening of training camp. These are the five big questions as camp begins.

How good is Phil Jurkovec?

This question won't matter if Ian Book stays healthy and plays the way he did last season. The quarterback situation is rarely so simple at Notre Dame, however: The backup quarterback has had to start at least once in each of the last two years.

If Book gets hurt, Jurkovec, a redshirt freshman, will take center stage. The four-star recruit from Pennsylvania is the heir apparent and has the arm strength and accuracy to lead the Irish. In April's Blue-Gold Game, however, he had a hard time feeling pressure and got sacked repeatedly.

“It was very disappointing,” Jurkovec said of that performance. “A pretty terrible day on my part.”

Coach Brian Kelly said he has confidence in his backup and thought he was just trying too hard. Camp will show whether the young signal-caller ironed out some of these issues over the summer.

How do the Irish replace Tranquill and Te'von Coney?

The Irish got a big break going into the 2018 season when Tranquill and Coney returned for one more season together. The pair combined for 209 tackles and 171/2 for loss in their final season patrolling the middle, forming one of the best linebacking duos in the country.

Both of them have moved on to the NFL, leaving inexperienced players and uncertainty behind. Asmar Bilal is the most tested of the returners with 50 tackles last season, but he'll face competition from sophomore Shayne Simon, on whom the coaches are very high. For the other spot, Jordan Genmark Heath is in the mix, as is the fast-rising Jack Lamb. The players who earn those roles have big shoes to fill.

Can Jafar Armstrong carry the load?

Armstrong moved from wide receiver to running back as a redshirt freshman last season and made some noise as a multitalented back before ceding snaps to workhorse Dexter Williams. 

With Williams gone to the NFL, Armstrong will likely be the featured running back. Tony Jones Jr. is the only other player in the position group with real experience. Armstrong averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2018 but carried the ball only 72 times. It's probably asking a bit much of him to be an every-down back in just his second season at the position.

Other backs, such as Jones, Jahmir Smith and powerful true freshman Kyren Williams, will battle for carries in camp.

Who plays across from Troy Pride?

Replacing Julian Love, one of the best cover corners in the country last season, will be just as important as finding the next Tranquill or Coney. Pride is a capable corner, but the rest of the depth chart is a mixed bag.

Houston Griffith, the top recruit from the 2018 class, will be in the mix across from Pride, as will Donte Vaughn, who struggled in the Cotton Bowl when Love went out. TaRiq Bracy was ahead of the curve as a true freshman last season and could crash the rotation as well.

Which true freshman will make an immediate impact?

For most members of the 2019 recruiting class, camp will be their first chance to really show off their skills on the field. Ten members of the class enrolled early, and a couple of them impressed in spring ball, including defensive tackle Jacob Lacey and Kyren Williams.

Among those who will make their debuts in Irish uniforms at camp, the name to watch is safety Kyle Hamilton, a five-star recruit who might be the third safety behind Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman from Day 1.

Coming ahead

Wednesday: Previewing Purdue's football camp

Thursday: Previewing Indiana's camp

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