Irish Breakdown: Notre Dame Mailbag

It's time for a Notre Dame mailbag, so send your questions to Irish Breakdown

The 2020 Notre Dame football season has come to a close, and its time to move forward and think about the future. That makes it the perfect time to have a mailbag, but I can't do it without you!

What we are going to do is have an Irish Breakdown mailbag that begins now and will go through the weekend. 

Here's how it will work. In the comments section below, please submit any questions you have about Notre Dame football, Notre Dame recruiting or anything else Fighting Irish athletics related. As you submit questions I'll take them, add them to this article and provide my answer.

We can talk about the defensive coordinator search, players lost, plays coming in, players returning, spring ball, looking ahead to the 2021 season, etc. Anything you want to discuss we'll discuss.

So, fire away!


4:27 PM - Q: David - Can you rank the current ND coaches in terms of recruiting? Who is doing a great job? Who needs to go?

Answer: I don't ever advocate for firing a coach, for many reasons. One, that's not my job, and if a Notre Dame coach went out and publicly said that I needed to be fired I'd be pissed, and find that to be incredibly unprofessional. Question the job I'm doing, sure, that's fair game, that's part of the job. Second, as a former coach who was fired once, it's not a fun conversation to go home and talk to your wife/family about the fact you now have to move and your lives are being uprooted. 

Regarding the first part of your question, I think all the coaches need to continue upping their game from a recruiting standpoint. There's no one on the current staff who is just killing it in recruiting, although Mike Mickens made one heck of a first impression. Can he now do that year after year? 

Having said that, Del Alexander, Terry Joseph and whoever gets hired to coach linebackers all need to step up their recruiting game. As good of a job as Lea did as a defensive coordinator, his recruiting work was way, way below what we saw from Elko. Should Joseph leave and Notre Dame replace him with Kerry Cooks I would view that as an upgrade as a coach and recruiter.

I think Lance Taylor needs to up his game as a recruiter as well. He's certainly been better than Autry Denson, but he hasn't proven to be as good as Tony Alford. Jeff Quinn has also been solid, but he too needs to step up his game a bit. The 2022 class is huge for him.

3:10 PM - Q: Peter Tarsney - Several question:

1. There seems to be some suggestion in media reports and comments following the Alabama loss that Kelly really wants to win a title and is focused on proving his detractors wrong by doing so. Normally, that attitude would mean that a person makes whatever changes are necessary to improve. Yet, the only time we have seen Kelly truly change is when his job was on the line in 2016. First, do you agree with the assessment that Kelly really wants a title, or is that just media talk? Put another way, what is Kelly's true motivation at this stage in his career? Second, does Kelly have the football acumen to make the necessary changes on offense that are needed? Does he even see the problem as you have described it, or does he not even realize the true nature of the challenge?

Answer: I think Kelly wants to win a title, sure. He's a competitor, so of course he wants to win. Everyone wants to win. But there's wanting to win, and then there's having a burning, all-encompassing desire to do whatever it takes to win. Kelly has the first, he has not shown me he has the latter. 

He talks the talk, as I pointed out in my article about his post-game rant. But he doesn't walk the walk, and his decision to promote Tommy Rees and have him run the offense we saw him run this year is evidence that he isn't willing to shake up the program.

When Ohio State got embarrassed on the national stage and failed to win a Big Ten Championship in 2016, Urban Meyer went out and landed Ryan Day and they shook up the offense. Brian Kelly turned the keys to the car over to a 28-year old offensive coordinator who was going to run the same tired offense that had come up short for a decade.

2. Relatedly, when do you think Kelly retires? If the wheels come off next year as in 2016, will there be an appetite at ND to let him go any make a change?

Answer: I honestly have no idea.

3. If Kelly decided to demote or fire Rees (or Rees left for some other job), who would be your first and second choice to be the offensive coordinator (assuming you could pick whoever you wanted)?

Answer: He's not going to do either, so there's really no need to speculate. I don't think firing Rees is even the answer. Kelly made his bed and had Rees run that offense. When it failed, that was on Kelly, not Rees.

I do think Rees is a very smart young coach. I don't think Kelly needs to demote him at this point or replace him. What Kelly needs to do is say to Rees, "You see what Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Alabama are doing? That's what we need to do. Now go study those programs and figure out how we can build a dynamic, explosive offense that builds around our talent and allows him to score at will, on anybody."

That's what needs to be done, and with Rees being a smart young guy I think he and Lance Taylor can get that done if given the freedom to do it their way.

4. You expressed concern that bringing in a transfer QB would be a problem if it causes the staff to stop developing their younger recruits. I share the concern, but would note that QB development in the Kelly era is, well, pretty bad. If Kelly is not going to make any fundamental offensive changes and is always simply looking for a better Tommy Rees at QB, should Notre Dame make it a practice to simply find a transfer QB ever other year? In other words, since Kelly can't develop a QB, maybe the backup strategy is to let better coaches at other schools develop them, and then plug a new one into his boring offense each year. I am not advocating this, and it won't help us beat Bama. But it may continue to get him 9 wins a year (assuming a top flight defense).

Answer: No, they should not do that. They should develop an explosive offensive philosophy, recruit to that and develop those players. 

5. If Elston becomes DC, can he keep the defense at high enough level to make up for no real offense (as happened this year for much of the year)? If not, do you believe the wheels could come off next year with Rees offense and a scaled down D?s

Answer: I'm curious to see what Elston can do in charge of the defense. As I said below, I'd rather give him a shot than some of the other mediocre or unproven candidates being thrown around. He's very familiar with the current system and I think he more than held his own running the defense in 2016.

If they do land Elston I'd like to see some shake ups in other areas, and give him a better safeties coach and make sure he's surrounded by strong recruiters, which is something the staff as a whole needs more of.

I'd also like to see Elston not coaching the DL anymore if that happens, and then ND can bring in a strong young defensive line coach. Perhaps bring back Larry Black

3:07 PM - Q: BrocketAab - Do you think that it is a foregone conclusion that Coan starts and finishes the year as the starter ? Or do you realistically think one of the other 3 qbs will legitimately push for playing time.

Answer: I think its a foregone conclusion that Jack Coan starts the year at quarterback, I don't know about finishing it. To me, that depends on three things. One, will the staff just do what they did with Book and he's the guy, no matter what. Two, will the staff give Drew Pyne and Brendon Clark legit shots at the job, or is Coan the bridge to Tyler Buchner. Three, how quickly does Buchner develop?

I've been told my multiple sources that Buchner was told he'd play as a freshman, so if he makes a fast adjustment we will likely see him at some point, although I'm not sure what that role will look like.

3:05 PM - Q: Ponce Tinkham - How can these questions about accountability, trust, and standards, once again arising? How is Jack Swarbrick on top of this?

Answer: The same reason Swarbrick had no clue that the program was on the decline in 2014-15 either. He focuses on the W's and L's, and the money pouring in is my best guess at this wthout having ever talked to him about the situation, or anything else for that matter.

If there is in fact something bigger going on, why would anyone think the two people who failed to see it and address it last time until it was too late (Kelly, Swarbrick) are somehow going to figure it out now.

3:00 PM - Q: Marie Biafore - With Marcus Freeman likely out of the picture, which other outside coaches do you think ND should be looking at? As and outside DC considering the ND job, what are the biggest negatives about the job?

Answer: When I see names like Jay Bateman and Zach Arnett being bantered around my first thought is, "Why not Mike Elston?" None of those coaches have proven to be able to put together top Power 5 defenses, or even a great Group of Five defense like Freeman put together.

Notre Dame made its run at Freeman, although I'm not sure they were ever competitive financially there. And it seems unwilling to fork over the dough to make runs at other top coordinators.

Why settle for a relatively unproven coach when Elston has been Kelly's most loyal assistant for almost two decades. If Notre Dame is unwilling to fork over the dough for a proven, top of the line defensive coordinator, why not go with a coach like Elston who knows the personnel, worked with Elko and Lea the last four years, and certainly doesn't view Notre Dame as a stepping stone.

My question is who at Notre Dame is unwilling to fork over the dough, is it the administration or is it Kelly? I've heard both sides blamed for this.

2:41 PM - Q: ShiverMeFingers - Since you're a former coach, I was hoping you might have some solid insight into this. After your "offensive philosophy" post, I'm wondering if you can shed some light into the philosophy of what it takes to get a team of young guys into a proper competitive mindset for a huge game. Like, what is the overall team philosophy and how do you get to a good place with that ahead of a big game? 

Saban has been known for a while as a coach who would, no matter how long the gap of time between SEC Championship and BCS game (or Playoff game), have his men ready to come out, start quick, and play competitively. And other elite coaches do that, too. What goes into the preparation there as a coaching staff from a team philosophy standpoint? What are the key elements for getting a football team ready mentally to play that big post-season game?

Answer: For me I don't think you can just turn it on for some games. I think first of all you need to have an overall philosophy, from both a scheme and preparation standpoint, that gets your team playing at a high level. No matter what buttons Kelly pushed before the Alabama game from an emotion standpoint, they weren't going to win that game because the offensive philosophy was never going to give the team a chance to compete.

I think the Notre Dame players battled physically and played hard, they were mentally and emotionally ready to play, but schematically they were put at a disadvantage. In the postseason it's about ramping things up from where they already are, it's not about creating new emotion or new energy, it's about really zeroing in the focus, but if your overall philosophy isn't where it needs to be you aren't pushing enough buttons.

In the past the team failed to meet the emotional level of the opposition, and that ties into the "business-like" approach that Kelly prefers. I felt this team had more emotion, whether that was from the coaches or the leaders of the team, that part of the team I was quite happy with this season outside of one game (Clemson, ACC title game).

Part of what you are getting at is what I think Kelly misses. He's so focused on just "winning" that he can't see the forest through the trees. Notre Dame out-talents a lot of teams, and because of that he is lulled into a false sense of security that doesn't get exposed until games like the ACC title game or the playoff game.

2:39 PM - Q: Josh Herbeck - You’ve discussed overhauling the pass game. What concepts would you like to see ND start running outside of RPOs?

Answer: I'm working on an article about that now to follow up my change in philosophy article. Keep an eye out for that. But it's not as much of a specific scheme change or changes as it is a philosophy.

2:33 PM - Q: tellthetruth - I agree that ND offense needs to be upgraded. It seems Brian Kelly is far more open to "outside hires" on the defensive side of the ball (Elko, Lea, reportedly looking into multiple outside hires now).

Given the breakdown of the Chip Long tenure and the hiring of the possibly-talented but underqualified Rees, do we have reason to be concerned that Kelly so needs his hand in the offense that he will never allow an OC to truly "run the show" on that side of the ball?

Answer: I think it's a huge concern. Notre Dame has been the same offense for basically eight straight years. Tweaks here and there, but it's been the same offense. We started to see progress with Chip Long, but Kelly moved on from him and handed the reigns over to someone whose resume is almost entirely built around doing it the "Kelly way." 

Many of the positive changes that Long brought were eliminated, and we saw the offense take a step back this season. It's a stale, out-dated offense but Kelly thinks its the way to go. I think he's been lured into the appeal of it being an "upset proof" offense that ensures when he has the more talented team they are going to win games. 

It's a low-risk, low-reward system. Until Kelly realizes that he needs to get into the modern era on offense to win a championship, we're going to see the same ol' same ol' in upcoming seasons.

12:35 PM - Q: Jacob - Should we be concerned with this roster overhaul? Is this a reflection on the state of the program? Players butting heads with coaches? Alarming or not alarming?

Answer: I think there is certainly cause for concern. Some of the attrition is expected. No one blames Jafar Armstrong or the staff for him leaving. He wants to play and right now there are better players in front of him. At other spots, however, the reasons for leaving are far more concerning.

The reason Houston Griffith and Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo are leaving isn't playing time, as all three had legitimate chances to become starters next season. They were going to be key rotation players at the very least, but they are willing to risk leaving and uncertainty of a new place because there are bigger problems afoot in South Bend.

A lot of the things I've heard coming out of the program the last two years sounds a lot like what I heard coming out of the program before, during and after the 2015 season, and heading into the 2016 season. There's a lack of trust, a lack of accountability and a feeling that not everyone is being held to the same standard, and it starts at the top.

12:35 PM - Q: Jacob - Do you expect or have heard of any more big names leaving? Whether it would be via NFL Draft or Transfer?

Answer: I don't know if I would call them "big names," as Tremble was the biggest name I had heard about among the veterans. There are a few younger players that are concerning, but so far there has been no bad news to report. The longer that goes on the greater the odds those young players stay for the spring, and that gives the staff a chance to show them they are in fact part of the future plans, despite wasting a year of development with them in 2020.

12:34 PM - Q: Chamgel - Any updates on Mike Elko as the DC?

Answer: As I suspected initially and wrote in my recent article about Elko, the rumors about him coming back were just that, internet rumors. I've talked to a pair of sources that are very close to the situation, and the notion that Mike Elko was considering coming back to Notre Dame or that he was interested in leaving Texas A&M are completely false.

11:41 AM - Q: Chamgel - Let’s talk see defensive coordinator... have you heard anything new on Freeman? If he’s not the guy, who’s next in line?

Answer: The latest I've heard is that Freeman is expected to turn Notre Dame down, but that isn't official, and hopefully Notre Dame has made him a financial offer and a "you're in charge" offer that he can't refuse. I wouldn't be surprised at all if a decision with Freeman was made today, at least in regards to Notre Dame.

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