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Mailbag: Who are Notre Dame’s next names to know?

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Jafar Armstrong #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a second quarter touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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The question has been asked before. It will be asked again. It is the basis of much of the conversation over the next seven months (215 days, to be exact). The eventual answers will determine Notre Dame’s 2019 ceiling, just as Miles Boykin, Dexter Williams and Alohi Gilman did in pushing the Irish to a Playoff berth last season.

It’s once again that time of year for me to start looking at the roster and find my new man-crush. Looking at the offense and the defense, pick 1-2 that are not already established starters or stars within their unit that you think will make that leap to the next level and be a big-time contributor. — Mark H.

Mark posited rising junior left guard Aaron Banks and rising junior tight end Brock Wright, although he also put rather unrealistic hopes upon each, including the phrase “echo what we had with Nelson/McGlinchey.” That was a once in a lifetime pairing, Mark. Placing Banks and rising senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg in the same sentence as the two top-10 picks is foolish in every regard.

Let’s start with rising junior running back Jafar Armstrong and a simple math equation: Health + Chip Long’s joy in incorporating running backs into the passing game + Lance Taylor’s development of multi-faceted running backs = The best Irish out-of-the-backfield threat since Theo Riddick.

Armstrong is right out of central casting as far as new running backs coach Taylor is concerned, a receiver-turned-running back having shown aptitude in both aspects but not yet having broken through, in part due to injuries in 2018. Might Armstrong be able to match the 1,287 combined yards and seven touchdowns on 226 touches from Riddick in 2012? That could be a reach, but it is comparable to the pace Armstrong was on in 2018’s first four games when he was both healthy and Notre Dame’s lead back. Through those four wins, Armstrong had 54 touches for 352 yards and five touchdowns, a pace of 176 touches for 1,144 yards and 16 touchdowns across 13 games.

With Ian Book at quarterback, rather than Brandon Wimbush as was the case in three of those four games, Armstrong’s opportunities should not diminish. Book will keep the ball on carries less often, and he makes better overall reads in the passing game, progressions that include running backs in Long’s system.

Provided health, Armstrong could become the fulcrum of Notre Dame’s offense in 2019.

Defensively, Mark suggested Kurt Hinish as he steps in for Jerry Tillery. Mark is on the right path, but the better chance is for rising junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to be the attention-grabber. He might have greatly eased Tillery’s workload in 2018 if not for breaking a foot in the opener. He will step into Tillery’s shoes, using length to complement power in the middle of the defensive attack.

Perhaps more than anybody else aside from defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Tagovailoa-Amosa will benefit from the returns of rising senior ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Opposing offensive lines will struggle to double-team the interior. Tagovailoa-Amosa will have at least a few chances each week to simply overpower a center or a guard.

What is the scuttlebutt on Phil Jurkovec’s development and potential to overtake Book? — nudeman

The day for that evaluation has not yet come. Jurkovec spent his freshman season directing the Irish scout team. Notre Dame had two starting-caliber quarterbacks. Pushing a raw freshman into the mix would have served no good. Jurkovec understood that and had no problems with it, perhaps the best indicator of his demeanor and standing within the locker room.

Jurkovec will have a chance to impress this spring. He will handle about 40 percent of the snaps in each practice. If he impresses, that will not be ignored.

But Book just led the Irish to the Playoff and is 9-1 as a starter. He set program records. He showed a thorough understanding of Long’s playbook.

Expecting Jurkovec to overcome Book this offseason simply because the public always wants what it has not seen is rash and dismissive of what Book did in 2018. For now, let’s put it this way: Jurkovec was not considered for a moment as the answer to the first question.

Keep sending in the questions. Appreciated in advance —

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