Independents preview: Notre Dame, BYU poised for success

Sports

One power-conference team, one that is soon to be the same, one service academy, two soon-to-be Conference USA rivals and two teams starting from scratch and looking for a future. College football’s independents are quite a mishmash in 2022, but with Notre Dame forever leading the way, let’s talk indie football.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (No. 1-5)


2021 recap

For the biggest indie brands, 2021 was primarily about life after losing ultra-successful starting quarterbacks: Ian Book (Notre Dame) and Zach Wilson (BYU). Notre Dame leaned mostly on Jack Coan, with occasional cameos from Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne, and held steady while BYU managed to slip only from seventh to 15th in offensive SP+ despite losing Wilson, 1,100-yard receiver Dax Milne, All-American tackle Brady Christensen and coordinator Jeff Grimes.

BYU still suffered a step backward because of a defensive reset, but the Irish and Cougars each exceeded projections, going 11-2 and 10-3, respectively. Liberty and Army also enjoyed success — the former enjoyed its second straight top-50 performance with Malik Willis at quarterback, and the latter won at least nine games for the fourth time in five years.

Then there was the other end of the spectrum. New Mexico State, UConn and UMass took up the bottom three spots nationally in SP+, went a combined 4-32 — 2-3 against FCS opponents, 2-2 against each other and 0-27 against the rest of FBS — and either let their head coaches walk or made them. Not great.


2022 projections

Double-dipping in the turnover department can be scary, and with Coan gone, Notre Dame must replace its starting quarterback for the second straight year. (The Irish also lost head coach Brian Kelly to LSU, which has its own set of obvious potential repercussions.) But if either Buchner or Pyne thrives behind center, the rest of the roster is loaded with experience. New head man Marcus Freeman has a chance to hit the ground running.

BYU had one of the lowest returning-production rankings in the country in 2021 and, as is often the case, now boasts one of the highest. If the defense resumes its 2020 form, the Cougars could be fantastic. Liberty and Army both replace their starting QBs but should still bowl, and … the other three are playing football, too.


Burning questions

How long will Marcus Freeman need? Marcus Freeman puts off a vibe of seasoned maturity despite his young age (36). He has thrived in virtually every role he has filled — the last two being defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, then at Notre Dame — and quickly went from up-and-coming to holding one of the sport’s biggest jobs when Kelly moved to Baton Rouge. He kept Kelly’s offensive coordinator, Tommy Rees, in the name of continuity and potential, and Rees’ biggest puzzle for this fall is pretty obvious.

Now, whoever wins the starting quarterback job in 2022, be it Buchner or Pyne, will inherit an outstanding line — four starters return, including nearly error-free center Jarrett Patterson — and one of the nation’s better security blankets in tight end Michael Mayer. Granted, an even better security blanket (running back Kyren Williams) is gone, and the Irish would be quite well served if a few former star recruits in the skill corps were to click.

So who will that quarterback be? The answer isn’t clear yet. Buchner, the more touted of the two candidates, showed off his rushing ability in 2021, averaging 7.7 yards over 45 non-sack carries, but he also threw three interceptions in 35 pass attempts. He seemed to show both a higher ceiling and a lower floor than Pyne, who didn’t display the same mobility but made some big plays with his arm and went 6-for-8 for 81 yards and a touchdown after Coan got hurt against Wisconsin.

Defensively, it’s hard to worry much. Granted, it’s been a while since Al Golden was coordinating an elite defense — his 2004 Virginia defense was 15th in defensive SP+, but he was either a college head coach or NFL position coach for most of the years since — but the Irish improved from 20th to 15th with Freeman as coordinator in 2021, and they return nine of the 12 players who had 400-plus snaps. Ends Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola are fabulous, corner Cam Hart is one of the best in the country, and the loss of all-world safety Kyle Hamilton was dampened both by the fact that Hamilton missed the last six games of 2021 and by the addition of Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph. We’ll see how the personality changes with Golden playing a key role, but the talent is undeniable.

BYU’s defense will improve … but how much? For all of his success in six years as BYU’s head coach — and it’s safe to say that five bowl seasons, a two-year run of 21 wins and only four losses and a Big 12 invitation qualify as success, even to the more demanding among the Cougars fan base — Kalani Sitake hasn’t quite mastered class balance just yet. While the BYU offense has steadily improved after a disastrous first couple of seasons, the defense has careened from 33rd in defensive SP+ in 2018 to 57th in 2019 to 21st in 2020 and to 79th in 2021. When BYU’s defense returns a lot of experience, it’s good. When it doesn’t (and it really didn’t last season), it isn’t.

This should be a good year then. BYU returns 16 of the 17 defenders who recorded 250-plus snaps in 2021; the Cougars also add Vanderbilt cornerback transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally (539 snaps) and corner Micah Harper, a regular in 2020 before a 2021 knee injury. From ranking near the bottom of the country in returning production last season, BYU now ranks near the top. If experience allows Sitake and coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki to attack a bit more (and allows what was a mediocre set of pass-rushers to get home more in the process), the Cougars could have a huge season.

SP+ projects BYU to improve to 48th defensively, which, combined with a fearsome offense, would make the Cougars a top-25 team. If they bounce back to 2020 levels of defense, BYU could make a run at an unbeaten record.

The offense should indeed be tremendous. The Cougars fell only from seventh to 15th in offensive SP+ last season despite the loss of Zach Wilson. Quarterback Jaren Hall combined nearly mistake-free passing (five interceptions, few sacks) with about five non-sack carries per game at 8.3 yards per rush. His skill corps does lose some efficient players — RB Tyler Allgeier, slot Neil Pau’u, WR Samson Nacua — but returns an elite receiver duo in Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney. Sitake also added a solid safety net in Cal running back Christopher Brown. The line, which was young in 2021, returns almost everyone. Skill corps depth could be an issue, but that’s about it.

Can a new-look Liberty offense hold up? When you hire Hugh Freeze, points tend to follow. Freeze’s Ole Miss teams ranked 31st or better in offensive SP+ in all five of his seasons there, and after inheriting a shaky attack at Liberty, it took him until only his second season to build a top-50 attack in Lynchburg. The Flames were 34th in 2020 and 47th last fall.

Of course, they had Malik Willis for those two seasons. Now a member of the Tennessee Titans, Willis averaged nearly 2,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in 2020 and ’21. I can report that a young receiving corps could be dynamite — sophomores Demario Douglas and CJ Daniels averaged a robust 10.2 yards per target — and I can report that the combination of two returning starters and three exciting transfers (Tulsa’s X’Zauvea Gadlin, Colorado State’s Cam Reddy and Kentucky’s Naasir Watkins) could make the line solid. I can also mention that while the defense loses quite a few pieces, it still has power-conference caliber disruptors in ends TreShaun Clark and Durrell Johnson and linebacker Ahmad Walker at the least.

None of that will matter, however, if Freeze doesn’t have the quarterback he needs. Veteran Charlie Brewer comes to town via Baylor and Utah, and he’ll battle veteran Johnathan Bennett and youngsters Kaidon Salter and Nate Hampton. The Flames should bowl even if their selected signal-caller is merely decent, but matching their recent output — they were 18-6 in the Willis era — will require something more than that.

Does Army have the QB it needs? From 2012 to ’15 — Rich Ellerson’s last two seasons as head coach and Jeff Monken’s first two — Army won 10 total games. The Black Knights have now won at least nine in four of the past five seasons. As Navy’s level of recruiting under Ken Niumatalolo has slid, Army’s has held steady under Monken, and along with the always annoying to face option offense, defensive coordinator Nate Woody has fielded top-50 defenses, per SP+, for consecutive seasons.

Seven starters return from a unit that defended the run well, and in outside linebacker Andre Carter II, Army has a genuinely elite playmaker. Carter recorded 15.5 sacks, forced 12 incompletions or interceptions and defensed (intercepted or broke up) four passes. The loss of nose tackle Nolan Cockrill hurts, but this defense should be solid again.

The offense returns three starters on the line, plus primary ball carrier Jakobi Buchanan, No. 1 pass-catcher Isaiah Alston and big-play man Tyrell Robinson. The cast is just about set, but quarterback issues might derail things. Tyhier Tyler is a solid option QB but wasn’t trusted to pass — he had 124 non-sack rushes and 11 dropbacks, a one-sided distribution even by Army standards — and by far the two best passers on the team, Christian Anderson (also the best rusher) and Jabari Laws, are gone.

Even with the quarterback uncertainty, SP+ projects Army as a favorite in eight games and as only a narrow underdog in three others. This is likely to be another excellent year for an increasingly steady program. But the Black Knights could make a run at 10-2 or 11-1 if they have the right guy at QB.

The bottom three: Who builds traction first? Say this much for the guys taking over three of the hardest jobs in FBS: They’re experienced. And they probably know what they’re getting into. Sixty-year-old Jerry Kill (New Mexico State), 60-year-old Jim Mora (UConn) and 66-year-old Don Brown (UMass) have combined to win 326 games at the college and pro levels. They’ve all made plenty of money. None of them had to take these jobs on, but they chose to all the same. Evidently they really like being head coaches.

As mentioned above, these three teams might have been the worst in FBS last season. Laying out all of their limitations would take a while, but let’s spin things positively instead. Let’s talk about the most promising players and traits each team has because clearly they didn’t have a ton going for them.

UConn has an experienced defense and a secondary that showed moments of solid disruption. Sophomore safeties Durante Jones and Malik Dixon are playmakers (play-preventers, not so much), and senior corner Tre Wortham is a keeper. Meanwhile, end Kevon Jones is solid in both run defense and pass rushing. It wouldn’t be a shock if the defense exceeds expectations.

UMass has a couple of genuinely exciting offensive players in running back Ellis Merriweather and receiver Rico Arnold. And, unlike last season, the show likely won’t be run by a menagerie of freshman quarterbacks (who were in turn protected by a line loaded with freshmen). As for the defense, well, there’s a reason Brown added eight defensive transfers, six from the power conferences. There’s not a lot there. But the Minutemen could keep up in track meets occasionally.

NMSU has … Jerry Kill. Kill has created solid and sturdy programs in Division II, FCS and both lower- and higher-level FBS. He works hard enough that he tends to give himself health problems, but his résumé suggests he will establish a certain level of competence and sturdiness. Eventually. The offensive two-deep got destroyed by attrition, but he’ll at least have an experienced defense.


My 10 favorite players

QB Jaren Hall, BYU. Despite a midseason injury (and a slight funk that followed), Hall still combined 8.2 yards per dropback with 8.3 yards per non-sack carry. He’s an absolute delight.

RB Tyrell Robinson, Army. An option offense needs a home run hitter on the edge, and few are better at that: In 89 combined rushes and pass targets, Robinson gained 949 yards.

TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame. They called him Baby Gronk when he first came to South Bend, but Rob Gronkowski caught 75 passes in two seasons at Arizona, and Mayer already has caught 113. He is a go-to guy at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds.

WR Puka Nacua, BYU. After two years as a Washington role player, the former blue-chipper has thrived in Provo. He was Hall’s No. 1 target and averaged both 12.0 yards per target and an explosive 3.4 yards per route run.

LG Noel Ofori-Nyadu, UConn. UConn’s offense was dreadful in 2021, but that’s not on the junior from Arlington, Texas. According to Sports Info Solutions, he blew blocks on just 0.5% of rushes and 0.6% of passes. Hard to top that.

DE TreShaun Clark, Liberty. The 6-1, 250-pounder is a rock solid pass-rusher — 3.5 sacks, 11.2% pressure rate, 15 forced incompletions — but he’s even better as a run-rusher. (That’s a thing now.) He took part in 14 run stops, easily the most on the team.

DE Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame. It’s hard to top what Foskey offered at the Power 5 level last season. He recorded 11 sacks and forced five fumbles and 10 incompletions/interceptions; he also dropped into coverage and let another ace, Justin Ademilola, get his licks at the quarterback, too.

OLB Andre Carter II, Army. Let’s put it this way: Carter’s 15.5 sacks ranked second in FBS, behind only the 17.5 put up by Alabama’s amazing Will Anderson Jr. But Anderson rushed the passer 442 times … and Carter did so only 268 times. Good gracious.

LB Da’Shon Ross, UMass. I was a bit unfair above. Yes, UMass’ defense needed major transfer help, but that’s not Ross’ fault. The 235-pound junior is a one-man run defense who pairs well with sophomore Gerrell Johnson from a blitzing perspective.

CB Syrus Dumas, NMSU. In his first season out of Independence CC, Dumas picked off two passes, broke up eight more and proved a physical and willing tackler, making four run stuffs to boot.


Anniversaries

In 1927, 95 years ago, Army stomped Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame. Over his 13 seasons in charge in South Bend, Rockne lost just 12 games. Few were as comprehensive as this one, played in Yankee Stadium just four days after the great ’27 Yankees had finished a World Series sweep. A 49-yard Keener Cagle scramble and a third-quarter pick-six gave the Cadets the advantage, and they fended off a late attempted rally by the Irish with ease, winning 18-0.

In 1977, 45 years ago, BYU finished ranked for the first time. BYU’s accomplishments before LaVell Edwards: zero bowls, zero weeks ranked by the AP, two total seasons with more than six wins. With nothing to lose in such a hard job, Edwards adopted a pass-happy attack and led the Cougars to three winning seasons and a Fiesta Bowl (a loss to Oklahoma State) in his first four seasons, then enjoyed a further breakthrough in 1977.

Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen combined to throw for 3,585 yards and 40 touchdowns, BYU finished second in scoring offense, and a 68-19 win over UTEP capped a 9-2 season and a No. 20 final ranking. It was the start of a run: The Cougars would finish 16th or better six times in the next eight years, winning a stunning national title in 1984.

In 2007, 15 years ago, UConn was ranked! It really happened! After a solid start to their FBS existence (including a Motor City Bowl win in 2004), Randy Edsall’s Huskies rode a stellar defense to a hot start, pummeling Duke and Pitt and upsetting No. 11 USF — USF was also excellent that year! The 2007 season was amazing! — to move to 7-1 and 16th in the AP poll. Granted, they lost steam from there but still finished 9-4. They would spend parts of 2008 and 2010 ranked, too, winning a share of the Big East title and claiming a Fiesta Bowl bid in 2010.

(Let’s not talk about how things have played out since then.)

Also in 2007: Liberty won its first conference title (and UMass won its last). UMass has a long, proud football history; the Minutemen won or shared 17 Yankee Conference titles between 1960 and 1990, then won four Atlantic 10 titles and an FCS national title between 1998 and 2006. In 2007, their first season in the Colonial, they won a share of the title and reached the FCS playoff quarterfinals. Their head coach: Don Brown. He was let go after a rocky 2008 season, and UMass jumped to FBS just in time to fall apart completely.

Liberty’s period of solid football began just as UMass’ ended. After years as a nondescript NAIA and Division II program, the Flames found traction under Danny Rocco in 2007, going 8-3 and winning the Big South. They would win or share eight of the next 10 titles as well before jumping to FBS and keeping things rolling — they’re 26-11 in their past three seasons.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Notre Dame went to No. 1 for the first time in 19 years. The Irish reached either the BCS championship game or College Football Playoff three times during the 12-year Brian Kelly era. In 2012, they twice beat top-10 teams by 17 on the road (Michigan State in September, Oklahoma in October) and rose to No. 1 just in time to beat USC and claim a BCS title game spot. (Unfortunately for them, No. 2 Alabama was much, much better.)

In 2017, five years ago, NMSU won its first bowl in 57 years. It was honestly my favorite story of the entire season and the ultimate evidence that the “We have too many bowls, grumble grumble” crowd is dead wrong. The Aggies had finished with a winning record just three times in the previous 49 years, and they hadn’t played in or won a bowl game since beating Utah State in the 1960 Sun Bowl. Their crowd rushed the field when Doug Martin’s team beat South Alabama to secure bowl eligibility, then it did it again when Larry Rose III scored in overtime in the Arizona Bowl to beat, who else, Utah State.

NMSU won seven games that season, then proceeded to win only eight in the next four years. Hence why they’re starting over. Hard jobs tend to defeat you eventually, but Martin and the Aggies will always have Tucson.

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