Whether due to injury, poor performance on the field, or a combination of the two, there are several players on the 2020 roster that need to have bounce back campaigns for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to be successful. I wanted to take a look at three players I believe need to rebound in a major way for the 2020 Irish.
Entering the 2019 season, there was little secret around the Irish program that the offense was going to run through Jafar Armstrong. That plan lasted all of 2 carries and 1 reception until a torn core muscle sidelined Armstrong for the next four weeks. Even after his return, Armstrong lacked explosion and appeared lost on the field. He finished the year with 122 yards and 1 touchdown on 46 carries. This comes on the heels of an injury plagued season in 2018 where he missed 4 weeks with a knee infection and was slowed by an ankle injury throughout the 2nd half of the season.
While we don’t know how offensive coordinator Tommy Rees wants to deploy his stable of running backs, it is a safe bet that the Irish will look to lean on the running game. The offense returns all five starters on the offensive line and will be breaking in new starters at the receiver position. Entering spring practice, Armstrong should get first crack at the starting running back position. Others at the position include: Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, Avery Davis, Kyren Williams, and Chris Tyree. Combined, these 5 players have combined for 129 career carries and 496 yards.
If Armstrong can return to form during the early portion of 2018, during which he racked up 15 plays of 10 or more yards, the Irish should field a formidable ground game and alleviate pressure on Ian Book.
Considering the recent struggles of the Irish to recruit high-end talent at the cornerback position, one would think that a Top-100 recruit who plays cornerback would become an instant play-maker for Notre Dame. However, after an up and down season at the nickel position during the 2018 season, Griffith was lost in the shuffle in the defensive secondary last season. Griffith only played in three games, registering five total tackles. A pretty non-descript season for such a highly ranked prospect.
Following the Bowling Green victory last season, Brian Kelly mentioned to the media that Griffith was being moved to safety. Entering the 2020 season, Griffith has a great opportunity to slide into the starting safety position opposite Kyle Hamilton. Griffith’s biggest competition will come in the form of Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Regardless of if he starts or not, Griffith should see the field much more than the previous two seasons.
Clark Lea frequently deployed three safeties last season, and I expect that to continue with the returning talent at the position. If Griffith and Pryor show the ability to play the safety positions at a high level, Lea will be free to move Hamilton around the defense to create mismatches for one of Notre Dame’s most talented players. After two strong defensive seasons, the Irish can ill afford a step back this season.
Daelin Hayes was off to a strong start for the Irish in 2019, registering 6 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 fumble recovery in 4 games. Unfortunately, Hayes suffered a torn labrum in week 4 against Virginia. Luckily for both the Irish and Hayes, this meant he qualified for a medical redshirt. With the graduation of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, Hayes figures to slide into the starting weak-side defensive end position. Hayes should form a formidable duo at the defensive end position with Ade Ogundeji most likely manning the strong-side defensive end position.
While Notre Dame continues to possess plenty of depth along the defensive line, a team can never have too many pass rushers, as evidenced by last season. Hayes boasts a career resume which includes: 78 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, 3 pass breakups, and 1 forced fumble in his career. As a 5th year senior, he will be counted on to provide leadership and very likely will be voted a captain during the 2020 season. The Irish will have an inexperienced secondary as they replace both starting safeties and one starting cornerback.
The best option for Clark Lea to provide help to the back-end of his defense will be for the front seven to be able to consistently generate pressure. In my opinion, a strong season for Hayes will directly correlate with a strong season for the defense as a whole.
Let me know your thoughts on who you believe needs to have a bounce back season in order for the Irish to have a successful 2020 season!