Preview: Excitement surrounds 2021 season, Notre Dame opener

Anticipation is running high in Tallahassee for the start of the 2021 FSU football season. And why not? The ability to go through a full winter conditioning program, spring practice period, summer conditioning period and normal fall camp for the first time since head coach Mike Norvell took over the program in December 2019 has most fans believing the 2021 version of FSU football will be much better than the 2020 version.

Norvell and his staff have also been very successful on the recruiting front this year with a 2022 recruiting class that most experts believe could be a top-10 class. Norvell’s spring tour of the state in May, where he and his staff held youth football camps, was a stroke of genius and has played a big role in galvanizing support for the program. The addition of transfers like QB McKenzie Milton, DE Jermaine Johnson, DE Keir Thomas, OL Dillan Gibbons and DB Jammie Robinson, among others, also has FSU fans believing the turnaround could be expedited in Norvell’s second season.

And, oh by the way, FSU opens the 2021 season against 7th-ranked Notre Dame at home, at night, in a game that will feature the return of Doak Campbell Stadium being at or near full capacity for the first time since November 2019. That anticipation will reach its peak on Sunday night when Chief Osceola and Renegade plant the flaming spear at midfield under the lights of a full stadium and with the full attention of the college football world in a matchup featuring two of the most storied programs in college football history.

Eyeing the Irish

Brian Kelly enters his 12th season in South Bend coming off a 10-2 record and an appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2020. Kelly has a record at Notre Dame of 102-39. Notre Dame has won 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons and in five of the last six years. To put the job Kelly has done in perspective, the last time the Irish have had consecutive 10-plus win seasons was under Lou Holtz from 1991-1993. Holtz was also the last coach at Notre Dame before Kelly to have 10-plus wins in five of six seasons (1988-1993).

Former Irish quarterback Tommy Rees returns for his second season as the Irish offensive coordinator. The Notre Dame defense will be under the leadership of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who joined the Irish staff after four seasons in the same role at Cincinnati under Luke Fickell.

Notre Dame’s Offense

Many of the names have changed from last year’s team that finished 26th in the country in total offense. But after watching the Irish Spring Game on tape the scheme looks to be much the same. Notre Dame is replacing Ian Book, who led the Irish to a school-record 30 wins as a starting quarterback. Kelly must also replace four of the five starting offensive linemen from a year ago, who cleared the way for the 24th-best rushing offense in the nation in 2020.

Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is set to take over the reigns of the Irish’s offense that will feature 11-personnel (1 RB, TE), 10-personnel and 21-personnel groupings based off the spring game. Coan, who is 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, was very efficient in Notre Dame’s spring game, where he completed 18 of 32 passes for 197 yards with one interception thrown and his completion percentage hurt by a couple of drops by his wide receivers. He has a strong arm, quick release and decides where the ball needs to go quickly. He did a nice job of stepping up in the pocket when he felt pressure coming from the edge of the defense and is nifty enough with his feet to buy some time by moving outside the pocket with pressure coming up the middle. However, you will never confuse him for Ian Book or Jordan Travis as far as being able to escape the pocket and make big plays with his legs. Coan will also figure less in the run game than Book, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards in his career. Notre Dame’s backup at quarterback will be freshman Drew Pyne (5-11 and 200 pounds), who has thrown all of three passes in his brief career.

The Irish feature a talented group of running backs, led by dynamic playmaker Kyren Williams. The 5-9 and 200-pound sophomore ran for 1,125 yards last season on 211 carries. Williams’ best game last year came against FSU, where he averaged 9.7 yards per carry on a night where he ran for 185 yards and two scores. Besides being quick, fast and hard to tackle, he is also versatile. Last season he caught 35 passes, which ranked second on the team, for 313 yards. There is little to no drop off when sophomore Chris Tyree (5-9 and 190 pounds) replaces him in the backfield. Tyree ran for 496 yards on 73 carries last season and led the team in average yards per carry. The pair form quite the duo when lined up in the backfield at the same time. Junior C’Bo Flemister (5-11 and 201 pounds) also returns to the Notre Dame backfield.

Clearing the way for Williams and protecting Coan will be an inexperienced (by Notre Dame’s standards) offensive line. However, the first-team unit did look very solid in the spring game. And while there might be some drop off in talent and/or production from this unit, it does feature two players who garnered post season honors for their play in 2020. Center Jarrett Patterson (6-4 and 307 pounds) was an Honorable Mention All-American last season. Patterson has started 20 career games and likely has an NFL future ahead of him. Notre Dame also added Marshall graduate transfer Cain Madden (6-2 and 310 pounds). He earned second-team All-American honors at guard last season. Left guard Zeke Carroll (6-3 and 295 pounds) and right tackle Josh Lugg (6-6 and 306 pounds) have a combined four starts between them. Carroll has seen action in eight games in his career while Lugg has appeared in a total of 24 games. True freshman left tackle Blake Fisher (6-6 and 335 pounds) will be making his college debut.

Tight end Michael Mayer (6-4 and 251 pounds) will likely be Coan’s favorite target and looks to be a star in the making. All he did as a freshman last season was catch 42 passes (tied for most on the team) for 450 yards and two touchdowns. One question for the Irish heading into this season is who will be the playmakers at wide reciever. Starters Braden Lenzy (5-11 and 162 pounds), Kevin Austin Jr. (6-2 and 215 pounds) and Avery Davis (5-11 and 202 pounds) combined for 32 receptions last season. The trio has just seven combined starts at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s Defense

FSU will likely have to prepare for a little bit of everything with Freeman now running the Notre Dame defense. The Irish showed a lot of even-front looks in their spring game but are likely to show FSU some odd-front looks and play with some odd-front principals at times. Freeman is an aggressive playcaller and was not shy about walking two linebackers up in the A-gaps (the space between the center and guards) during the spring game and blitzing one or both of them.

The most experienced and deepest part of the Irish defense is their defensive front. Nose tackle Kurt Hanish (6-1 and 300 pounds) has 25 starts in 50 career games played. He is very stout against the run as evidenced by his 7.5 tackles for a loss (third-best on the team) last season. Defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (6-2 and 268 pounds), earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2020 after recording six TFLs and totaling 2.5 sacks. He has started 20 of the 38 games he has played. Isaiah Foskey (6-5 and 260 pounds) will start at the other defensive end spot after appearing in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2020. His 4.5 sacks ranked second on the team despite not starting a single game. Jayson Ademilola (6-3 and 280 pounds) brings 30 games’ of experience to the other defensive tackle spot.

Middle linebacker Drew White (6-0 and 228 pounds) is by far the most experienced player on the second level of the Irish defense. White, who played at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, has 23 career starts in 29 career games and was third on the team in tackles a year ago with 57 stops. He will be flanked on either side by SAM linebacker Jack Kiser (6-1 and 222 pounds) and WILL linebacker JD Bertrand (6-1 and 230 pounds). Kiser made one start last year and totaled 20 tackles in 11 games played. Bertrand has seen action in 15 games over the last two seasons and recorded seven tackles in 2020.

The leader of the secondary and one the most highly thought of safeties in all of college football is Kyle Hamilton. The 6-4 and 220-pound junior is one of the top NFL prospects at any position for next spring’s draft. He was frequently listed on All-American teams after leading Notre Dame with 63 tackles a season ago. Houston Griffith (6-2 and 205 pounds) will start at the other safety spot. The starters at cornerback are young and inexperienced. Clarence Lewis (5-11 and 193 pounds) and Cam Hart (6-2 and 205 pounds) are both sophomores with both having seen action in 12 career games.

Notre Dame’s Special Teams

Jonathan Doerer will handle the place-kicking duties this season after hitting on 15 of 23 field-goal attempts last year. Doerer was very accurate from inside 40 yards but five of his eight misses in 2020 came from 40 yards or beyond.

Jay Bramblett is back for his third season as the starting punter. Last season he averaged 42.4 yards on 43 punts. He forced 15 fair catches, had 10 punts of over 50 yards and 12 of his punts forced opposing offenses to start possession inside their own 20-yard line.

The Fighting Irish also have both of their returners back. Matt Salerno (6-foot and 199 pounds) will return punts. Last season he averaged 4.5 yards on 10 return attempts. As a team they attempted only 14 returns on 50 opportunities.

Tyree will be the primary kickoff return man. Last season he averaged 20.7 yards per return on 22 attempts. As a team they attempted to return 23 of 52 of their opponents kickoff opportunities.