For the second-consecutive year, Notre Dame loses its leading rusher, receiver and tight end. Such is the nature of college football. But this time around, the departures do not dent the Irish offense nearly as much.
That results partially from not having Dexter Williams for the first four games of the 2018 season, but as much as that, it traces to the emergence of rising junior running back Jafar Armstrong (when healthy). There was no such encouraging sign for Notre Dame coming out of 2017.
2017 total rushing stats by running backs: 362 rushes for 2,422 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Stats returning for 2018: 83 rushes for 592 yards and seven touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 22.93 percent of rushes for 24.4 percent of yards and one-third of touchdowns.
2018 total rushing stats by running backs: 335 rushes for 1,840 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Stats currently returning for 2019: 177 rushes for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 53.31 percent of rushes for 45.92 percent of yards and 45.45 percent of touchdowns.
Note: None of those figures include rushing yards by a quarterback, just as there will not be a segment here discussing passing stats. It is an all-or-nothing endeavor — either the primary quarterback returns or does not — and discussing it in these terms seems an exercise in word-count boosting. Similarly, the influx provided by Brandon Wimbush in 2017 was not seen in 2018 once he was benched, so giving credit for those rushing yards in the percentages thought would be one defying the logic to the exercise.
The quarterback change from Wimbush to rising senior Ian Book does noticeably impact the receivers’ stats. Book’s ability to accurately distribute the ball across the available targets led to less of a reliance on any one particular player, Equanimeous St. Brown in 2017.
2017 total receiving stats by receivers: 113 catches for 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Stats returning for 2018: 51 catches for 775 yards and five touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 45.13 percent of catches for 45.16 percent of yards and one-third of touchdowns.
2018 total receiving stats by receivers: 170 catches for 2,310 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Stats currently returning for 2019: 111 catches for 1,438 yards and seven touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 65.29 percent of catches for 62.25 percent of yards and 46.67 percent of touchdowns.
Make no mistake, the Irish relied on Miles Boykin in 2018, but with three receivers pulling in 47 catches or more and two of them returning, Notre Dame will have other proven options. Further context: No Irish receiver had more than 33 catches in 2017, and only two returned with double-digit catches, their 41 combined falling short of both returning numbers this time around.
If two seasons of this seems like a small sample, that is a valid thought, but to offer two counters:
1) It is the most-recent example of a good season following a good season, with the next most-recent possibility coming back in 2005 and 2006, and even those two years combined for three fewer wins than the last two did, 22 the highest two-season total seen at Notre Dame since 1988-89.
2) It is the same amount of time offensive coordinator Chip Long has directed the Irish attack. His distribution of the ball, both in play-calling and in roster reliance, is different than the years prior, as best seen in utilizing running backs and tight ends in the passing game.
2017 receiving stats by tight ends and running backs: 69 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns.
Stats returning for 2018: 38 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 55.07 percent of catches for 42.13 percent of yards and three-quarters of touchdowns.
2018 receiving stats by tight ends and running backs: 96 catches for 1,029 yards and eight touchdowns.
Stats currently returning for 2019: 41 catches for 526 yards and two touchdowns.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 42.17 percent of catches for 51.12 percent of yards and one-quarter of touchdowns.
Notre Dame should be able to handle even the loss of Alizé Mack better than it did that of Durham Smythe, even if the next tight end option (rising junior Cole Kmet) is not as established as Mack was. The likes of Armstrong and rising senior running back Tony Jones will help with that concern, both having shown big-play ability in the receiving game. In Long’s system, running backs and tight ends can be nearly interchangeable in the aerial regards.
Simply enough, the Irish are better equipped to further develop on offense than they were a year ago, no matter the losses of Williams, Boykin and Mack.