Although we are 214 days away from kicking off the season in Dublin, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at three potential breakout candidates for the 2020 season.
Many folks had begun to write Braden Lenzy off following an unheralded freshman campaign and after an unproductive first half of the season in 2019. However, during the second half of the season Lenzy recorded a 51 yard score on an end-around against USC, a 70 yard touchdown reception against Navy, and a 61 yard touchdown run against Boston College as he developed into a big-time play-maker for the Irish. In total, he recorded 11 receptions for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns, while also carrying the ball 13 times for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. Lenzy even returned 3 kickoffs for 71 yards against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. While these numbers may seem pedestrian, Lenzy certainly feels like he turned the corner during his sophomore campaign. He stated in late November, “I think last year (freshman season) changed my mindset, I guess. I wouldn’t say I had things easy coming in, but I realized I needed to do a lot more. I couldn’t just be the fast guy. Even though I am the fast guy, there’s other parts of my game that have vastly improved.” It is hard to argue with that assessment, given Lenzy’s improved route-running and blocking, two attributes which got him onto the field during the stretch run. With Chris Finke and Chase Claypool graduating, there is a large void to be filled in the wide receiver room. Lenzy’s 4.40 sec 40 yd dash speed (clocked in April of 2019) provides the Irish with a weapon they have not had on the outside since Will Fuller. I expect Lenzy to start the season as the Field wide receiver and be the primary kickoff returner for the Irish. If the second half of last season is any indication, Lenzy has a chance to total 1,500 all-purpose yards and score 10-12 touchdowns.
While most highly recruited freshman defensive ends make their presence felt via the sack, Isaiah Foskey’s most important play of the season came via a blocked punt against Stanford in the regular season finale. With a plethora of talent along the defensive line last season, the staff was able to preserve Foskey’s redshirt season by only playing him in four games. A season stat line of 5 tackles in 4 games will not move the needle much outside of South Bend. However, Mike Elston and the rest of the coaching staff are counting on big things out of the consensus 4-star defensive end. Foskey possesses the size and athleticism to play at either the drop end or rush end position, which should only improve his chances of seeing playing time during the upcoming season. Fans should expect to see an improved frame on Foskey after an off-season in Matt Balis’ lifting program. With Daelin Hayes health always a question mark, having a capable backup in Foskey is paramount to the success of the defense. Expecting a sophomore campaign like Stephon Tuitt’s in 2012 may be setting the bar a little bit too high. However, I predict Foskey will record more than 5 sacks during the 2020 season and contribute valuable snaps as the 3rd defensive end on Clark Lea’s defense.
Cornerback is one of the major question marks for the Irish for the upcoming season. Shaun Crawford and Bracy appear to be the two starting cornerbacks on paper for the Irish in fall. Although both players have had a role of defense the past two seasons, they will be leaned upon heavily due to the inexperience behind them on the depth chart. Neither possesses great size, as Bracy stands 5’10’’ and Crawford comes in at 5’9’’. During the 2019 season, TaRiq Bracy registered 34 total tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 7 defended passes. One of the major tenets of the Clark Lea defense is to limit explosive plays. In order to accomplish this, players in the defensive backfield must be counted on to get skill players to the ground in space. With a 90.8 tackling rating from Pro Football Focus during the 2019 season and 0 career missed tackles, expect Bracy to play a major role in limiting those explosive plays. One area that Bracy must improve upon is his completion percentage allowed on balls thrown his way. 61% of all balls thrown Bracy’s way in 2019 went for a completion. This number needs to get down to at least 50% for the defense to remain as stingy as it was last season in which the Irish were ranked 5th in Team Passing Efficiency as a defense. Another area I would like to see Bracy improve upon is interceptions. Despite playing 573 snaps over the past two years, he has not recorded an interception. By cutting down on the completion percentage and securing a few interceptions, Bracy could be set to follow in the footsteps of Troy Pride Jr. and Julian Love and become the team’s next premier cornerback.
Let me know who you think will be this year’s breakout candidates. Go Irish!