Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times is taking an early look at every game on Virginia Tech’s 2019 schedule. Check back every Tuesday and Thursday this summer for a new preview.
Notre Dame’s blowout loss in the semifinals of College Football Playoff to Clemson overshadowed a strong year.
The Fighting Irish were undefeated in the regular season, which included a blowout win over Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. It was the third time in four years the Irish had double-digit wins.
While Notre Dame lost a couple of key contributors to the NFL, Virginia Tech shouldn’t expect much of a drop-off when it heads to South Bend on Nov. 2. The Irish are bringing back seven starters on both sides of the ball and had stability on the sidelines with coach Brian Kelly only replacing one assistant coach during the offseason after running backs coach Autry Denson accepted the head coaching job at Charleston Southern.
Last year vs. Virginia Tech: Notre Dame W 45-23
What happen? Virginia Tech went into halftime holding its own against the No. 6 team in the country, but the second half was a different story.
Running back Dexter Williams broke a 97-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s first possession of the half — the longest run in Lane Stadium history — and quarterback Ian Book threw a 40-yard touchdown on the Irish’s next drive to blow the game open. Williams finished the game with 178 yards and three TDs on 17 carries (he went into halftime with 19 rushing yards).
Notre Dame’s offensive fireworks came as Virginia Tech’s offense fell flat. The Hokies missed a pair of field goals — from 47 and 52 yards — and managed one prolonged drive.
Position(s) of strength: Notre Dame is one of the few teams Virginia Tech faces through the first eight weeks of the 2019 season with a returning starter at quarterback. The Hokies will once again have to game plan for Ian Book, who threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns at Lane Stadium last season.
Book was one of the most effective quarterbacks in the country after landing the starting job in Week 4. He completed 68 percent of his pass attempts — he completed more than 70 percent of his pass attempts in his first five starts — with 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He also ran the ball 95 times for 280 yards with four touchdowns.
Notre Dame also has a veteran offensive line (four players with starting experience) to protect Book. The Irish only need to replace last year's starting center Sam Mustipher.
On defense, don’t sleep on Notre Dame’s secondary. Starting defensive back Julian Love left early for the NFL Draft, but the Fighting Irish have three returning starters — all seniors — coming back (defensive back Troy Pride plus safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliot). Gilman and Elliot combined for six interceptions, 18 defended passes and three forced fumbles last season. The Irish ranked second in the country last year giving up 5.6 yards per completion.
Ch...ch...changes: Notre Dame needs to replace its top two playmakers on offense. Williams is gone along with leading receiver Miles Boykin (59 catches for 872 yards with eight touchdowns). Boykin was a key player in crunch time for the team with a team-leading 188 receiving yards in the fourth quarter.
Senior receivers Chase Claypool (50 catches for 639 yards with four touchdowns) and Chris Finke (49 catches for 571 yards with two touchdowns) will give coach Kelly a veteran presence at the position, but there’s room for the team’s younger receivers to step up.
The Irish will turn to former receiver Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. at running back. Early enrollee Kyren Williams, a four-star back ranked No. 24 in the 2019 class, could also get a look.
Notre Dame also had plenty of turnover on special teams with place kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome graduating. Yoon set a career points record during his four-year career while Newsome was a team captain as a senior. Freshman punter Jay Bramblett, another one of the team’s 10 early enrollees, will likely be called on to fill the void left by Yoon.
Lingering questions: Notre Dame has to replace its talented starting linebacker tandem of Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney. The defenders combined for 209 tackles last season and 18.5 tackles for loss (7.5 sacks). The defense has little experience on the roster at the position thanks to the pair’s longevity as three-year starters.
Another position defensive coordinator Clark Lea needs to sort out is defensive tackle. Notre Dame remains loaded with edge rushers, but the defense lost Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner on the interior. Tillery, who was a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, won't be easy to replace. The 6-foot-6, 295-pounder was one of the most physically gifted tackles in college football last year.
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