Reviewing Notre Dame’s 2020 Position Group Ratings: 1 To 10
Last year at this time, we rated Notre Dame’s position groups from 1 to 10 — strongest on paper to one with the most concern — prior to spring practice, which would be halted after just one session (March 5) because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because the spring semester this year began about three weeks later than normal (Feb. 3), spring drills are not slated to begin until the latter part of March. Meanwhile, the winter strength and conditioning program was put on temporary pause this past weekend because of COVID cases that hit the program.
Last year at this time, here is how we rated each position group on paper for the 2020 season:
1. Offensive Line
The 114 career starts returning among six different players made it the most veteran line returning for the Fighting Irish ever since college football went to two platoons in 1964.
End 2020 Result: The 2020 team literally and figuratively “laid it on the line” by heavily relying on this quintet, and it delivered during the 10-0 regular season that helped result in a College Football Playoff bid. Four of the unit's starters could potentially be drafted by the NFL this spring.
2. Defensive Line
While there were no sure-fire NFL selections in the top two or three rounds, the collective depth, rotation and recent history of development made this one of the more promising 2020 units.
End 2020 Result: Just like the offensive line, this group remained steady and stout throughout the season, and future star power emerged with sophomore end Isaiah Foskey. He will need to be an edge force in 2021 to complement the interior led by fifth-year seniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a prototype at his position, and fellow senior Mike linebacker Drew White returned with him after they led the 2019 team in tackles with 80 apiece, 21.5 for lost yardage. The issue centered on who could replace Asmar Bilal at Buck linebacker.
End 2020 Result: Unanimous All-American Owusu-Koramoah became Notre Dame’s third Butkus Award winner in nine seasons, while White and junior Bo Bauer provided a strong tandem in the middle.
Establishing a consistent figure at Will — the new name for the position under first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman — remains a work in progress as it was throughout 2020.
4. Special Teams
Kicker Jonathan Doerer and punter Jay Bramblett, excelled as first-year starters in 2019, and the coverage units were among the best in the nation.
End 2020 Result: Doerer came up huge in the Nov. 7 win over then No. 1 Clemson but faltered some thereafter. Bramblett and the coverage units remained more than solid, and the return game was not a factor.
Despite the graduation of captains Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, the mere return of Freshman All-American Kyle Hamilton instantly bolstered this group.
End 2020 Result: Indeed, Hamilton earned several first-, second- and third-team All-America honors, even though an ankle injury in the opener might have affected him somewhat. Surprisingly, sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford had to shift from nickel/corner to start at the other safety position.
6. Tight End
Had Cole Kmet returned for his senior year, this position group easily would have in the top 3, but junior Tommy Tremble was coming off a strong sophomore showing, while senior Brock Wright and top 40 recruit Michael Mayer could supply quality depth.
End 2020 Result: Seldom have we seen a tight end be so highlighted just for his blocking acumen as Tremble was with his isolation play. He became the second straight tight end to turn pro after his junior year.
In the multiple-tight end offense, Mayer proved even better than advertised, with his 42 catches tying for the team lead while showcasing a skill set that could make him as good as anyone who has played the position at Notre Dame, which in itself is extraordinary.
Both tight end and running back would join offensive line, defensive line and linebacker in our final top 5 at the end of 2020.
Third-year starter Ian Book provided much-needed experience and leadership, but the vertical threat and depth questions dropped the rating some entering 2020.
End 2020 Result: Often unappreciated about Book is that without him, this team might have lost three or more games during the regular season because of the shaky depth situation. His moxie and playmaking skills with his feet enabled him to be the first Notre Dame quarterback in 14 years to finish in the top 10 (No. 9) in the Heisman balloting.
8. Wide Receiver
Following the graduation of second-round pick Chase Claypool plus 106 career catches by Chris Finke, no returning wideout in 2020 had more than 13 career catches.
End 2020 Result: The projected starting trio of juniors Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III suffered a litany of health setbacks the entire year and combined for 13 catches for 132 yards.
Fortunately, fifth-year senior Javon McKinley, Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek and converted quarterback/running back Avery Davis emerged enough to complement the bread-and-butter power ground game. The trio was effective against the relatively sub-par 2020 schedule, but not enough to rank among the top tier nationally.
9. Running Back
Senior Jafar Armstrong’s 505 career yards rushing made him the front-runner, but an injury history and no clear No. 2 figure made this a tenuous situation.
End 2020 Result: After rushing for only 26 yards on four carries as a freshman, Kyren Williams was hands down the top surprise and most improved figure for the Irish in 2020 with his 1,125 yards rushing and 35 catches. Just as significant was a physical approach and mental “edge” he brought that enhanced the entire operation.
Freshman speedster Chris Tyree provided a quality complement with 496 yards rushing.
With Troy Pride Jr., and Donte Vaughn both graduated, it left sixth-year senior Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy as the projected starters. Crawford has missed 40 starts because of several major injuries, while the 5-10, 170-pound Bracy would be tested for durability.
End 2020 Result: Crawford was needed at safety, so the enrollment of North Carolina State graduate transfer Nick McCloud proved a significant addition to the unit on the boundary side. By the start of November, freshman three-star Clarence Lewis had unseated Bracy at field corner.
Just like last year, this position likely will remain the top question mark entering 2021.
Tomorrow: An early 1 to 10 review for 2021.
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