The 2020 college football season is over, and it was another season in which Notre Dame was pretty darn good, but not good enough if your standard is winning national championships.
There are two things every objective fan should be able to accept. One is that Notre Dame is light years ahead of where it was when Brian Kelly took over as the head coach. Two is that Notre Dame has hit a road block when it comes to taking yet another step.
What needs to be done now on the Notre Dame end of things is looking at the strengths and work to make them better, and then figure out areas where the program isn’t where it needs to be and focus on getting those areas up to par with what it takes to be a champion.
There are areas where Notre Dame is already at a championship level, areas where they are close but still work to be done, and there are areas where they are still quite far away from being on the championship level. As we fully jump into the offseason, let’s take a look at where Notre Dame stacks up in these areas, beginning with the offense.
It looks at where the program has been in recent seasons (last four seasons) and where it looks to be projecting future teams (next three seasons).
Offensive Line — Notre Dame has won the Joe Moore Award (2017) and been a Joe Moore Award finalist (2020) with two lines had just one position where there wasn’t turnover from the previous lineup. Even though the 2018 and 2019 lines weren’t on that elite level, they were still pretty good.
Notre Dame’s line also played well in the games that mattered this season. They were dominant in the win over Clemson in November and I believe they out-played the Alabama front in the Rose Bowl.
Looking forward, Notre Dame’s roster is loaded with talented up and coming players. The Irish are certain to take a step back in 2021, which will happen when you lose four starters, but it should still be good and it should be building towards once again having one of the nation’s best lines in 2022.
Notre Dame’s returning roster has four players that were ranked as Top 100 recruits and four more that ranked among the Top 150 recruits. That list doesn’t include Jarrett Patterson, who will likely be battling for All-American honors next season. There is more than enough talent for Notre Dame to continue fielding a dominant line, one capable of anchoring a championship caliber offense.
Tight End — There isn’t a program in the country that recruits and develops tight ends better than what Notre Dame has done in recent seasons. Michael Mayer was the best freshman tight end in the country and he’s only going to get better. Behind him is a depth chart loaded with former four-star recruits. There isn’t a position where Notre Dame is better suited to reload year after year.
There should be no doubt that Notre Dame’s tight end talent and production is as good as any program in the country.
Running Back — This might come across as controversial to some, but Notre Dame has been able to overcome the poor recruiting of Autry Denson and has the running back depth chart in great position. Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Tony Jones all averaged more yards per carry in their final seasons than did Najee Harris for Alabama. Now that is just one aspect to being an impact back, but it shows that running back hasn’t been the issue at Notre Dame. Depth has been a concern due to poor recruiting, but in most years ND has been plenty good enough there, and that is especially true looking at the roster in 2021 and beyond.
Kyren Williams wasn’t at that level from a yards per carry standpoint in his first season, but he’s just getting started. Williams is also the kind of dual threat player that fits so well in modern offenses. He can play big boy football between the tackles, he can pass block and he’s a legitimate weapon in the pass game, both out of the backfield and lined up outside.
Freshman Chris Tyree is a legit Top 100 recruit, and he showed this season he’s a legit home run threat. His game has plenty of room for growth, and a backfield with Williams and Tyree is one you can build a championship contender around. When freshman Audric Estime shows up, and if he’s in a class with Logan Diggs, I feel really good about where things are with the backfield.
WORK TO BE DONE
Wide Receiver — The wide receiver position is an interesting one. I don’t buy the narrative that Notre Dame lacks talent at the position. I think Notre Dame lacks the development at the position in some areas, I don’t think they use the wide receivers as effectively as they should, and I think the scheme holds back the talent that exists.
In the last five years Notre Dame has produced four NFL wide receiver draft picks, and the program hasn’t been devoid of talented pass catchers. In the last five drafts, Notre Dame has produced seven NFL Draft picks at wide receiver and tight end, which is the same number that Clemson has produced, and Ohio State only has eight.
Anyone pointing to the lack of talent at the position is buying into a false narrative created by head coach Brian Kelly after big losses in which he looks for justifications that aren’t player related. Remember when he said they didn’t have enough explosive playmakers after the 2018 loss to Clemson? Yes, the team with Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin, Dexter Williams, Cole Kmet, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy and Alize Mack lacked enough explosive playmakers, and that is why Notre Dame scored three points against Clemson.
Is a talent upgrade desired? Absolutely, that should always be the case, but the fact is Notre Dame has had enough weapons at wide receiver and tight end to be a dynamic offense, and that’s been true going all the way back to the 2015 season.
What needs to change moving forward is how that unit is used, and to stop blaming the wideouts for decisions made at the coaching level, and for not developing the quarterback position well enough to maximize the wide receiver talent.
Quarterback and Coaching — Notre Dame’s talent at quarterback hasn’t been as much of an issue as the coaching and development at the position. Not including Tyler Buchner, who has yet to arrive on campus, Notre Dame has signed eight quarterbacks under Kelly that ranked higher in the 247Sports composite list than both Joe Burrow (LSU) and Mac Jones (Alabama), the last two national title winning quarterbacks that passed for over 400 yards and five touchdowns in the title game.
Burrow wasn’t Burrow before LSU made a scheme change. Doesn’t anyone actually believe Burrow would have been a Heisman winner, national champion or number one overall draft pick had the Tigers ran the same system in 2019 that they ran in 2018, when he threw 19 touchdown passes?
Yes, Notre Dame should continue to try and land the best possible quarterback it can every year, but the last 11 years have taught us that until changes are made with how quarterbacks are being developed, and the system that quarterbacks are being asked to run, Notre Dame will continue to fall short when it comes to the level of quarterback play needed to win a title.
Tommy Rees and Everett Golson are the only two quarterbacks who had a higher quarterback rating in their second seasons in the lineup than they did their first. Golson got benched in the year where he “improved” his quarterback rating. Rees only started because Golson got suspended.
DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book all saw their quarterback efficiency numbers decrease each year they played. Book went from a 153.96 rating and 290.6 passing yards per game in 2018 to a 144.25 rating and 235.8 passing yards in 2020.
Kelly can deny the regression at the position all he wants, but he until he embraces it, looks for reasons why and then addresses those issues the quarterback position will continue to fall short, no matter how much talent the staff continues to recruit.
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