As we stand less than two weeks from opening day in Tallahassee, there’s a lot to be both excited and nervous about when it comes to the 2021 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season.
The Irish are replacing one of the more successful QBs in the program’s history, 4 starting offensive linemen, multiple starting wide receivers, an All-American linebacker, and key starters/leaders at defensive end (x2), cornerback, and safety. Looking at the replacements at all those spots this spring/early summer did not necessarily make everyone super confident, as lots of questions about unproven and late-developing guys stepping into key roles had many convinced that the team will be taking a sizable step back in 2021, even if a relatively easy schedule by ND standards means a successful season is still very likely.
However, the reports coming out of summer practice have been very encouraging, especially at the offensive skill positions. Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan has seized the reins at QB (and looks ready to sling it downfield a lot more than Ian Book was capable of, for better or worse), Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy finally look healthy and dominant, and the Irish have potentially the best talent they’ve ever had in the Brian Kelly era at both running back (Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, Chris Tyree, plus multiple talented reserves) and tight end (Michael Mayer, George Takacs, Kevin Bauman).
Considering there are still questions about how good the offensive line will be with undersized guards (Zeke Correll, Cain Madden) and with a true freshman at left tackle (Blake Fisher), I’m somewhat skeptical that the Irish offense will be able to bulldoze opponents on the ground, at least compared to what they’ve been able to do the last 3-4 years.
Instead, I think Tommy Rees will open up the playbook a bit and throw the ball more by necessity, which will put Coan in a position to significantly surpass the 2,727 yards and 18 TDs he threw for in Madison in 2019. Besides two teammates (Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus), he had nothing at Wisconsin close to the vast arsenal of weapons he will have to throw to in 2021 with ND.
Mayer has been described as “uncoverable,” which is believable after he caught 42 passes for 450 yards and 2 TDs as a true freshman at a position where freshmen don’t contribute very often, or look as physically imposing as he did.
Bellyman and Tyree are both sensational receiving backs who will be super dangerous and reliable targets for Coan to dump it off to if needed. Avery Davis is as trustworthy as they come in the slot, and all reports are that while Joe Wilkins Jr. and Lawrence Keys III have really transformed their games and will be contributors this year, true freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie could maybe end up pushing for some PT as well.
Oh, and did I forget to mention the two former 4-star senior receivers that are reportedly finally healthy and absolutely abusing the Notre Dame secondary in camp? Sure, some of this could be because the ND defensive backfield is pretty unproven outside of Kyle Hamilton, but in Austin and Lenzy, Coan will have two targets who are old, experienced veterans capable of torching DBs deep, and in the case of Austin, he’s also a strong, sizable specimen capable of overpowering defenders for first downs and big plays.
Look, I’m not saying Coan will necessarily throw for 3500 yards, which is roughly what he will need to hit to surpass Everett Golson’s 2014 total (the most in the Kelly era), but if he could put up 2700+ yards and 18 touchdowns in a run-first Wisconsin offense with a lot less skill talent, I have a feeling a two-years-older Coan throwing to all these Irish weapons is going to be dropping some bombs on opposing defenses.
I think the ND receivers — especially Austin, Mayer, Lenzy, Davis, Bellyman, and Tyree — will combine for some truly eye-popping stats as the Irish navigate what will likely be a pretty weak schedule, both overall and in terms of defenses. And I think Coan manages to hit the 3,000 passing yards mark, which would automatically make his season one of the best 4 passing performances on Brian Kelly’s watch (along with: 1. 2014 Golson, 2. 2013 Rees, 3. 2019 Book).
Other Stray Predictions
- Marist Liufau will finish the season as the unquestioned top LB on the team, and may even get some All-American Team buzz
- If Chris Tyree is returning kicks again this season, he will house one before the first 6 games are done
- Houston Griffith will tie with KyHam for team lead in INTs
- Tommy Rees will miss ZERO games due to emergency appendectomies
- The Irish corners will be underwhelming, but juuuust good enough not to be a complete liability within the greater defense
- Rocco Spindler will be a starter by end of year
- In my weekly Q&As with opponent sites, I will get asked about ND joining the ACC and/or a conference at least 5 separate times (and be called “uppity” at least once for my response); also, I will engender at least 3 comments from OFD readers who don’t like my stupid, non-serious questions I like to add for some levity
- Jay Bramblett will further solidify himself as the best punter on the team — all those saying otherwise will now be forced to shut up
there’s always someone on twitter arguing with no one. saying stuff like “but I was told steph curry wasn’t a good shooter”— MacArthur Genius Grantland (@killakow) June 11, 2019
- I will finally accept, sometime around mid-season, that Cain Madden is not John Madden’s son
- Rylie Mills’ inevitable coming-out season will bring his “General Mills” nickname to national attention, to all of our delight but also to the chagrin of those of us still pushing “Bellyman” as much as possible but not gaining a ton of traction
Just a reminder… General Mills is the only acceptable name for our friend Rylie. pic.twitter.com/G9jKzZGwwL— One Foot Down (@OneFootDown) August 24, 2021
- Audric Estime will literally — and I am using “literally” quite literally here, folks — devour an opposing player who tries to tackle him in garbage time of a game
- Litchfield Ajavon will leave Notre Dame early to be named the permanent host of Jeopardy! after the show goes through multiple more false starts with their choices and after Jeopardy! producers check out Ajavon’s work on Twitter:
Side note: I now REALLY want to know what Brian Polian’s other two tattoos are.
2021 FULL SEASON PREDICTION: 11-1
I know what you’re thinking — this guy’s one of those cowards who can’t point to a specific game he thinks the Irish will lose in 2021, but who will hedge his bets by saying he thinks the Irish will get tripped up at some point (and probably mention the string of games mid-year that includes Wisconsin, Cincy, USC, Virginia Tech, and UNC).
Ya thought wrong, ya dingus!
No, instead, I think the Irish fall victim to the kind of loss that, sorry to inform y’all, even happens to great teams. Specifically, I think it will be the kind of inexplicable loss that Clemson has experienced before — losing to a not-great ACC Coastal Division team.
The possibilities on the 2021 schedule for a Coastal upset include UNC, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Virginia. I think the UNC and Virginia Tech matchups will create enough phony hype to have the team dialed in for convincing, statement victories that prove those teams aren’t on ND’s level. So, that leaves GaTech and Virginia as the most likely options. Considering GaTech is at Notre Dame Stadium, I think the Irish manage just fine there as well.
So, my conclusion is that the Irish’s first trip back to Scott Stadium since the Kizer/Fuller miracle of 2015 will prove to once again be an embarrassingly rough showing against a very average UVA squad, but this time the Cavaliers will actually get to leave with the upset — one that would have provided them the momentum to win the ACC Coastal, if they hadn’t just won the division in 2019. Someone else will end up winning it, instead — I don’t make the ACC Coastal rules, folks.