Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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18 AUGUST 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY BRYAN DRISKELL I t is a bit of a bad news and good news situation for Notre Dame heading into the 2017 season. The bad news is the Fight‑ ing Irish are coming off a 4‑8 year, which resulted in a major coaching staff overhaul. They enter the fall un‑ ranked and are staring down a chal‑ lenging schedule. The good news is they return a lot of seasoned talent, especially on of‑ fense. Now entering the pivotal third season, Notre Dame's 2015 recruiting class will be counted on heavily for major contributions on the field. The junior class had seven players in the starting lineup at the end of the spring, and at least that many more have opportunities to earn important rotation spots. A number of vital/leadership po‑ sitions will be manned by juniors, enhancing their significant impact on the program's overall success. LOADED BACKFIELD Juniors dominate Notre Dame's backfield, and it's here the class could have the most profound impact. After serving as a backup as a freshman in 2015 and redshirting in 2016, the quarterback position now falls to junior Brandon Wimbush. The Teaneck, N.J., native was a con‑ sensus top‑100 player and the top‑ rated recruit in the class according to Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports. Wimbush made a smooth transi‑ tion into the starting lineup during the spring, showing off the rocket arm and athleticism that made him such a highly coveted prospect. He showed a natural leadership, al‑ though the presence of senior cap‑ tains Quenton Nelson and Mike Mc‑ Glinchey on the offensive line will ease some of that burden on him. Despite just five career pass at‑ tempts for Wimbush, the expecta‑ tions are high. If he lives up to his prep billing, the Irish should get quality production from the quarter‑ back position. The proven commodity in the backfield is Josh Adams, who finally takes over the reins as the unques‑ tioned No. 1 at running back. After rushing for 1,768 yards in his first two seasons, All‑American notice is within the realm of possibility. Adams had a rough start in 2016, averaging just 59.4 yards per game and 4.7 yards per rush in the first seven contests against a schedule that featured just two top‑50 rushing de‑ fenses. He got hot down the stretch, though, averaging 103.4 yards per game and 7.5 yards per carry in the final five outings against a schedule with four top‑50 rushing defenses. That is the kind of production Notre Dame is expecting from Adams in his third season. Junior Dexter Williams is one of the best athletes on the field, but he will have to battle sophomore Tony Jones Jr. for the No. 2 running back position. Whether he is the No. 2 or No. 3 back, expect Williams to play, and even with limited touches he adds big‑play ability to the backfield. CARRYING THE PASS GAME Junior Equanimeous St. Brown al‑ ready established himself as Notre Dame's top pass catcher, leading the team with 58 receptions, 961 re‑ ceiving yards and nine touchdown catches a season ago. He will be ex‑ pected to take his game to another level in 2017. Lindy's Sports ranked St. Brown as the nation's fourth‑best wide receiver heading into the season, and Sports Il- lustrated listed him as the No. 9 wide receiver and No. 85 overall player in the country. St. Brown was consistent as a soph‑ omore, hauling in at least three re‑ ceptions in every game and compil‑ ing at least 60 yards in nine contests. In first‑year coordinator Chip Long's offense, he will get plenty of oppor‑ tunities to be more dominant. He should get even more snaps on the field side this season, which should result in more catch‑and‑run oppor‑ tunities than he had last fall. Notre Dame's staff built the pass game around tight end Alizé Mack during the spring of 2016, but an academic suspension cost him the entire season. The Irish lacked a true second weapon behind St. Brown last season, but the return of Mack gives them a potentially lethal one‑two punch in the pass game. Mack is a matchup nightmare for defenses when the Irish drop back to pass. He's too big for cornerbacks to handle, and his speed and ath‑ leticism is tough for linebackers and safeties to counter. The Las Vegas native displayed a larger physique in the spring, which helped him be more effective in the rushing attack. A better all‑around game should make Mack more dif‑ ficult to game plan against. While St. Brown and Mack should be a potent duo, they will not be the lone players from the junior class to make an impact in the pass game this fall. Miles Boykin emerged as a legiti‑ mate contender for playing time dur‑ ing the spring. He has excellent size (6‑4, 225), made a number of plays on back‑shoulder throws during open practices, and was especially effec‑ tive in the red zone. C.J. Sanders and former walk‑on Chris Finke lack the size of their classmates, but Sanders brings af‑ ter‑the‑catch ability to the offense and Finke is arguably the best route runner on the team. Sanders also has brought back one punt and three kickoffs for touchdowns dur‑ ing his first two seasons, making him a legit home run threat in the return game. FRONT HELP Notre Dame landed defensive end Bo Wallace on National Signing Day 2015, but the New Orleans native failed to qualify and enrolled at Ari‑ zona State (where he is not on the 2017 roster). That left the Irish with no edge players in the class, but they did ink four interior players who fill out this year's two deep there. URGENT NEEDS Notre Dame's junior class must play an instrumental role in a bounce-back season

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