College football is finally back.
This Saturday, Duke will make the trip to South Bend, Ind., to take on No. 10 Notre Dame. Last year’s matchup in Durham resulted in a 38-7 rout in favor of the Fighting Irish, and if Duke wants to avoid a repeat occurrence, it will need all hands on deck this weekend.
Remember his name: Kyle Hamilton
Duke needs to know exactly where Kyle Hamilton is on every single snap Saturday. The sophomore strong safety has a knack for finding the football and is the most dynamic playmaker on Notre Dame's defense. His four interceptions and five pass breakups last year landed him a PFF coverage grade of 89.7 as a true freshman.
Hamilton has received warranted attention for his pass defense, but he can make an equally large impact on run plays. The Atlanta native plays fast and has natural football instincts that allow him to make big open-field tackles on outside run plays when he is the last line of defense.
With the Blue Devils waiting as long as they did to name a starting quarterback, cohesion between the receivers and quarterback is a serious question. Hamilton knows how to use all 219 pounds of his 6-foot-4 frame when he makes a tackle, so he will make Blue Devil receivers pay for any errant lobs floated over the middle.
Close the ‘Book’
Ian Book should be getting far more attention than he has gotten this offseason. Last season, the then-redshirt junior threw for 3,034 yards and led the Fighting Irish offense to 36.8 points per game, which placed 13th in the country.
Book's completion percentage of 60.2 last year was accurate enough for head coach Brian Kelly to let him sling the ball around the field, and he's a much better runner than he gets credit for. The now-graduate senior is comfortable making the correct decision in the read-option and knows how to get positive yards when he pulls the handoff.
In last November's matchup against Duke, Book rushed for a season-high 139 yards, most of them coming from two read-option plays where he wriggled free for big gains. The Fighting Irish are going to lean on Book heavily to start the season off and rightfully so, as the California native is primed to build off his successful 2019 campaign.
Prey on the receivers
Duke’s secondary is loaded with both talent and experience, making it the perfect aspect of its game to wreak havoc on the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame lost its three leading receivers from last season, most notably second-round NFL Draft selection Chase Claypool.
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The Blue Devil defensive backs have a legitimate opportunity to make Book’s job miserable by rerouting and throwing complex coverages at the inexperienced Notre Dame receivers, giving edge rushers Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje plenty of time to get to Book.
Duke had nine interceptions last season, and if it wants to knock off the Fighting Irish, the secondary needs to prey on the lack of chemistry between Book and his new pass-catchers. This massive mismatch cannot be stressed enough, and is a clear aspect where Duke can change the game.
Liam the lion
Left tackle: the unsung hero of every successful football team. Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg is no different, and is already getting attention as a potential first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Obviously the play of the left tackle is important in every game, but it is of particular importance against Duke.
The Blue Devils' biggest strength is their defensive ends in Rumph and Dimukeje, who make up one of the best pass-rush duos in the nation. They both line up all over the line of scrimmage, but whoever draws Eichenberg’s side is going to have a tougher afternoon.
Duke cannot let Notre Dame suppress its pass rush and give Book all day to sit in the pocket. Despite he and his receivers having few snaps together, Book is a good enough quarterback to throw a strike to anyone when he has enough time. Rumph and Dimukeje can get the motivation flowing for the Blue Devils with big sacks, and cannot let Eichenberg make them a non-factor.
South Bend but don’t break
Notre Dame’s defense ranked 12th in the country in points allowed per game last season despite being vulnerable to the ground game.
The Fighting Irish return their playmaking linebacker in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who tied for the team-lead in tackles in 2019. Notre Dame isn't particularly good in any singular phase of its defense, but it is extremely good at keeping opponents from scoring.
All of the team's starters outside of linebacker Shayne Simon already have significant experience at the college level, making up a defensive unit that has a level of cohesiveness and experience that makes up for its shortcomings on the stat sheet in individual categories. For Duke's new-look 2020 offense, it'll be as big a test as it'll get all season long.