Irish Maven Mailbag: November 21

Bryan Driskell

It’s mailbag time!

Irish Maven subscribers submitted questions and now I will

Irish_polak — Do you think the powers that be on college football might try to force Notre Dame to join a conference by keeping them out of a NY6 bowl this year? I'm noticing an increase in criticism of ND for their independent status this year.

The increased criticism isn’t coming from the powers that be. The criticism comes from non-NBC media who have a vested financial interest in Notre Dame joining a league, because they know what kind of money maker that would be.

The College Football Playoff committee has been very, very kind to Notre Dame when the Irish earn it with their play on the field. When they don’t play well, the committee dings then, when they do play well the committee rewards them.

At the end of the day there is no grand conspiracy in my view. ESPN says things for ratings, they say things to for affect. If ESPN was the final arbiter of who made the Playoff or not and it came down to ND being an option, they would put ND in because ND is a money maker, and ultimately that’s all they care about.

PigPen2.0 — Almost all agree that BK has significantly improved the program in almost all ways in the last 10 years. Facilities, recruiting, coaching, training, etc.

Is it your impression that today the program is 1) still ascending, 2) remaining the same and 3) going backwards somewhat.

Whether you are a pro-Kelly guy or an anti-Kelly or anyone in between — and there are all different flavors of this one — this comes down to you being rational or not. And every single rational Notre Dame fan should be able to look at the program today, and compare it to the program Brian Kelly inherited, and just be blown away with how far the program has come with Kelly and Jack Swarbrick in charge.

Like you said, facilities, financial stability, coaching salaries, recruiting, perception, all of it has changed. That’s something we should all be able to agree on. But where the program is trending is a different question that rational people can come to different conclusions about.

I am sitting here frustrated with Notre Dame’s 8-2 season, and believe it is justified. I believe they will go 10-2, and it will be a disappointing 10-2.

That right there tells you what Kelly has done in the last decade. Prior to his arrival a 32-6 stretch of play (which is what ND will be if it wins the next two games) would have warranted previous coaches getting huge pay raises and extensions. But Kelly has raised the bar, and now just going 10-2 isn’t something that should be celebrated just because it’s 10-2.

The reality is all those improvements that Kelly and Swarbrick brought about have created a higher standard. Just going 10-2 with no big wins isn’t good enough anymore, and shouldn’t be good enough. The past excuses (subpar facilities, poor coaching salaries, recruiting issues, brutally tough schedules, academics, etc) aren’t there anymore; Kelly has dismantled them, and he deserves tremendous credit for doing so.

The problem with that, if you are in Kelly’s shoes, is that now the standard is higher than what it was when you were hired. So when you evaluate where the program is now, Kelly has raised it to a much higher level, but what we see going on with the program - both from what you can see and also what we hear - makes me ask serious questions about whether or not the program is building on last season’s Playoff run, or if it is now on the backend of an upward trend that lacks staying power.

I’m not saying that is the case, but for the first time in two years I’m concerned that it might be, but we’ll find out for sure over the next year, as both Notre Dame, Swarbrick and Kelly have some serious decisions to make.

They must all decide if what we saw this year is good enough, or are they serious about taking this program to the next level and becoming a true title contender. If they stay the course they are on now, we’ll see more 9-10 win seasons and the occasional Playoff run, but we won’t see Notre Dame be a serious contender. They can be, but just “coaching a little better” isn’t going to get it done.

Kelly must be willing to be far more critical of himself and his program than he was after the 2015 season, and more than what he says publicly. He cannot afford another bottoming out season that exposes the warts that were already present if he looked hard enough. But if he truly evaluates his program with an open mind, is willing to take a hard look at where his program is, and be willing to make some hard decisions, then he will be able to take the program to the next level. I truly believe he is capable of it. Whether or not he and the administration are willing to do that is a whole different question.

Pjtdomer — There seems to be something in the culture of Kelly’s program that causes the team to not be really prepared for big games. I realize there are a few exceptions like Oklahoma in 2012. But do you have any thoughts on why Kelly’s teams seem to fall flat on the big stage? With ten years of history now, this spans more than one coaching staff or set of players.

There are more than a few exceptions. Oklahoma and Stanford in 2012 were both big games. So was USC. A big game isn’t just a game against a big opponent, it’s also about the stage, and the 2012 USC game was on huge stage, and the team played well. Georgia in 2017 was a big game, and the Irish battled and were prepared in that game. USC in 2017 was a big game, and Notre Dame dominated. Michigan 2018 was a big game, and Notre Dame came out smoking. USC in 2018 was a big game.

There have been a fair share of big games. I think the problem for Notre Dame fans — and honestly it is for me as an evaluator of the program — is the high number of duds we’ve seen in these moments. It’s one thing to lose a game, it’s another thing to get embarrassed. There was no shame in Notre Dame losing to Florida State in 2014. That was a huge game and Notre Dame played as well as it could have, FSU was just better. That’s another big game that Notre Dame was prepared for.

But going on the road against Miami and just getting embarrassed, no excuse for that. Going on the road and getting embarrassed by an overrated Michigan team last month, no excuse for that. Getting owned by Stanford on the road every single year, no excuse for that. Getting blowout by Arizona State on the road, no excuse for that. If those things happened every now and then - like they did to Urban Meyer at Ohio State - you can chalk it up to those things happen sometimes, because they do. But at Notre Dame they have been far too frequent.

Kelly has led Notre Dame to a 30-6 record the last three seasons, which is tremendous. But among those six losses there was a 33-point loss to Miami, a 31-point loss to Michigan, a 27-point loss to Clemson and an 18-point loss to Stanford … all away from home.

For me, the issue is how Notre Dame goes about its business. Kelly is a very smart, very savvy and very serious guy. That has helped him in so many ways, and it has been a key ingredient to Notre Dame being as good as it has under him, and partly explains why he has taken the program as far as he has. But right now it is also one of the things holding him back from that final step.

Kelly talks constantly about every game is a big game. I’m paraphrasing, but he’s made multiple statements over the years about how one game isn’t bigger than the other, or that you have to avoid the emotional highs and lows. There’s some truth to that, but this is still college football, and the fact is emotion is still a big part of this game. It’s not about rah, rah pre-game speeches, it’s not about guys being over-emotional to the point it effects their play; it is about how you prepare your team on a day-to-day basis.

Kelly takes a very business-like, professional approach with the program. In some ways this is a very good thing, but football is also an intense game, an emotional game, and I believe the best coaches are the ones who can take that emotion, harness it and point it in the right direction. My observation of Notre Dame is that the emotion isn’t harnessed, its tamped down.

This is incredibly problematic, especially when you go on the road and especially when you play teams of equal or superior talent.

When you are going on the road to play a Michigan team fighting to save their season, you not only have to match their execution, you have to match their toughness, their energy and their emotion. Notre Dame didn’t do that, and it’s something we’ve seen happen far too often.

Ctamme — The LSU Bowl win a few years ago seemed to serve as a nice spring board of momentum into the following offseason. Would there be a bowl win of any sort that would wipe away the no-show at Michigan heading into the 2020 season, or do you see major changes ahead needed to be a playoff contender next fall?

I think if Notre Dame runs the table they go into the offseason with a ton of momentum, regardless of who they beat. Look, I have my issues with how this season played out, but if you go 11-2 that’s a season that should give a football team a great deal of momentum. Would 11-2 with a win over a Big 12, SEC or Big Ten team be better from a perception standpoint than 11-2 with a win over Memphis, Boise State or SMU? Of course, but 11-2 is still something you can use to generate a great deal of confidence within your program.

Chief1 — What position coaches at ND do you think rank among best at their positions purely as player developers?

I think there are a number of quality coaches at Notre Dame. If I list several then there’s the risk of people taking that to mean the coaches I didn’t mention aren’t good, are bad or however else that can be spun.

So I’ll point the one coach, who on a staff with several talented coaches, stands above the rest, and that is Clark Lea. Not only has he established himself as an outstanding defensive coordinator, he is also an incredibly talented linebacker coach and teacher.

Not many people — including myself — would have guessed that a linebacker corps of Asmar Bilal, Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah would have played as well as this unit played. He got the most out of his crew in each of his three seasons at Notre Dame. I also think Lea is helping to develop a talented young coach in Nick Leyzynski, who I think has an incredibly bright future in the coaching profession and I’ll be he looks back on his time working with Lea as a key to that.

Pjtdomer — Following on another’s question on assistant coaches, what is your opinion of Tom Rees as coach now that he has had some years under his belt.

I think Rees, for his age and overall lack of experience, does a good job. I think he’s done well when it comes to harnessing Ian Book’s mechanics, I think he does a good job keeping his quarterbacks on an even keel mentally and at the practices we’ve seen he does a lot of positive coaching. I also like the drill work he does with the quarterbacks.

His experience playing the position from an adversity and pressure standpoint also helps.

I think some point to the fact that we’ve seen both of the starting quarterbacks he’s coached regress the longer they stay at Notre Dame, but that has been happening well before Rees arrived as a coach, so its hard to put that entirely on him.

I also think that he needs to work through what most young coaches battle with when they first get started in the profession, and that is being able to coach the entire depth chart, and also being able to coach different styles. From various conversations I’ve had, I do believe there is a lot more Rees can and should do when it comes to harnessing the talent of his younger quarterbacks. That’s not a knock on Rees, because I had the same issues as a young coach and the vast, vast majority of coaches I know also had that same issue. It comes with experience, and right now he’s gaining that valuable experience. The key will then be adapting, developing and improving, and I think he’ll continue to do that.

twalsh13 — So do you think there will be an open competition for QB1 job between Phil and Ian next year, assuming Ian returns? And do you Think there should be open competition. Thanks for the great content!!!

Do I think there should be an open competition between all three quarterbacks? Yes. Do I think there will be an open competition if Book returns? No, I don’t. I think the staff’s actions on Saturdays and behind the scenes makes it clear that Phil Jurkovec is not part of the plans moving forward. Without stirring up too much of a hornet’s nest, the behind-the-scenes criticism he’s received anytime there is a call for anyone other than Book to play quarterback is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I just don’t see how you could say the things that have been said about Jurkovec if you thought he was your future.

Think about it. Book is the starting quarterback and whenever he plays poorly and he is critcized, Kelly goes all-in on backing him up, explaining away his struggles and gives him a lot of leeway. He got 20 games as a starter to finally figure things out, or so we are told.

But when Book went 8-25 against Michigan and the Irish lost by 31, Kelly made it very clear that he doesn’t believe Notre Dame can win with Jurkovec. That’s quite the opposite of what he’s said about quarterbacks in the past. He used to praise all his quarterbacks, but then elevate the starter above the others with that praise. It wasn’t until after he admitted he didn’t believe he could win with Jurkovec that he walked it back a week later. But at that point the damage was already done.

Don’t get me started on the other “sourced” comments out there about Jurkovec.

If the staff was serious about creating a real competition at the quarterback position, which honestly should almost always exist, they would be handling the quarterback position much differently this season. They would also be handling the behind-the-scenes comments about Jurkovec much differently.

I just don’t see this current staff, as presently constructed, ever giving Jurkovec a shot to win the starting quarterback position other than an injury creating an opening.

Matt0315 — How do think ND can improve the CB recruiting? They always seem to be in on the top targets but can never finish. Is it as simple as a coaching change or is there a deeper issue?

That’s not entirely true. Look, cornerback recruiting needs to get better, but when most evaluate “top targets” they look at who is the highest ranked player. Landen Bartleson was a top target for Notre Dame and he is currently committed to Notre Dame. From the sources I spoke with, Bartleson was higher on the board than Clark Phillips, who is a much higher ranked player.

KJ Wallace was a top target for Notre Dame in the 2019 class, and he signed with Notre Dame. Wallace was a Top 150 player nationally according to ESPN, and classmate Isaiah Rutherford was a Top 150 player according to Rivals and a Top 250 player according to 247Sports.

Now, do I think Notre Dame needs to improve cornerback recruiting? Absolutely. Do I think its the disaster that many that bring the position up to me believe it to be? Absolutely not. Part of this is the reality that cornerback is one position where Notre Dame is going to have a hard time landing the more highly ranked players.

Not since Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton have we seen Notre Dame string together consecutive classes with Top 100 corners. What Notre Dame must do a better job of is scouring the nation for more Julian Love’s, more Troy Pride’s, more Donte Vaughn’s. High upside players that need developed. They will have a much better shot at landing players like that on a consistent basis than they will landing Top 50 recruits.

The hope then is that you can land those types of players and mix them with the occasional Top 100 talent. Let’s be honest though, Notre Dame hasn’t had a Top 100 player starting at cornerback in the last three years, but cornerback play has been pretty darn good during that stretch.

IrishFan13 — ND Recruiting class of 2020: -recruit to make biggest impact as freshman -most underrated recruits in the class -how would you like to see ND finish out the class?

Offensively I think you have to look at Chris Tyree at running back. I think Jordan Johnson and especially Xavier Watts will get a chance to play right away, they are that good. But Tyree brings something (elite speed) to the offense that you have to find a way to get on the field.

If Tyree is healthy and not playing next season there is a problem with the RB coaching, but since I think Lance Taylor is a tremendous football coach, I don’t expect that to be the case. Tyree won’t need 15-20 touches or 40-50 snaps. He’s the kind of player that can have a rotational role that gets him 5-10 touches a game, but he can do a lot with those 5-10 touches, and that’s where his impact should come from.

I would love to see Notre Dame flip some currently unnamed player before the end of the cycle, but the pickup of grad transfer Isaiah Pryor takes away the need to land another defensive back, at least that is my opinion. Right now, if I’m Notre Dame I am more focused on making sure all your current commits sign in December and continuing to make a strong push with the 2021 class.

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Comments (17)
No. 1-11
sbf
sbf

those guys are called nfl draft picks unfortunately.

cody riggs was the rarity. if a guy is good enough to be a real difference maker, they are going to the nfl. the only way it might happen is due to an injury and the guy wanting/needing to prove themselves more.

The_XtraNDamer
The_XtraNDamer

Excellent article CoachD; and some great questions from the base. I was wondering with all the talk about this potentially being Book’s last season at Notre Dame if there’s actually going to be interest in Book from the NFL. Based on what I’ve read from your evaluations of him this year the NFL would seem unrealistic. Is Book to the NFL legitimate, or just noise to try and grab some additional fanfare? Thanks.

Hip19
Hip19

Agree that the way the arrogant, CEO of a head coach, his staff and the all knowing behind the scene “sources” have all but run a very talented back up QB out of town. Totally unnecessary and mismanaged even if they don’t believe he has what it takes to help them win, and clearly not in the overall best interest of the team. I am certain there are close to 100 Division I schools that would love to have him, develop him and ultimately play him. He will get his chance and likely excel; unfortunately just not for the Irish.

Chief1
Chief1

Coach your point about how the ND coaches handle Jurkovec, do you remember when I think it was vs Bowling Green Kelly said Jurkovec got confused with a dummy signal. I am just flabbergasted why a coach would throw a comment like that out about their player when it wasn’t even brought up. Am I overthinking it or is that a sign of a greater issue between Jurkovec and the staff?

Chief1
Chief1

Coach after listening to the podcast I’m curious what happened with ND and AJ Dillion? How does ND lose the grandson of a ND legend to BC?

Bob Rodes
Bob Rodes

@Brian Comment on your second response: I have to say that I'm happy to see the disappointment with a two-loss season. That hasn't happened since the days of Lou Holtz! It was the norm as I was growing up (the Gerry Faust years excepted), with everyone calling for Dan Devine's head when he lost three, after Ara had never gone worse than 7-2-1 in the regular season.

So, it points out exactly the progress that you describe that we feel that we left something on the table with two losses. As you say, going forward we want to see a run at the NC, not a 10-win season, as the norm. At this point, I have the feeling that we are headed in that direction, and am very much looking forward to seeing what the next two or three years bring.

brnd
brnd

A top grad transfer CB would be nice

gairish
gairish

Really like this format. Great to see these questions and great, informative answers. This, Midweek Musings, and game analysis/ strategy are my favorites. Interesting to know your take on the Asst. coaches.

Matt0315
Matt0315

There is no way BK can sell a QB competition if Book returns. A 5th year senior captain doesn't return to school if he is not guaranteed to start.

PigPen2.0
PigPen2.0

Excellent answer to the question after mine about big games, and you hit the nail on the head in my opinion. There are many many more plusses than minuses about Kelly, many of which are discussed here. But clearly the ability to motivate, inspire, get his team to rise up and achieve more than even they thought was possible isn't part of his coaching DNA

When you take 18-22 year old kids into a hostile environment, you have to make them believe they're capable of shutting everyone up and killing it. A great rah rah pre game speech is nice but it's way more than that and I don't pretend to know the entire formula. But BK's teams, Oklahoma 2012 aside, can be expected to lose these big road games against really tough opponents 100% of the time. Sometimes they play pretty well but find a way to lose, like FSU 2014 and Clemson 2015 or Stanford in Palo Alto every time. Other times they're just overwhelmed, look unprepared and just get trucked.

I played golf once about 3-4 years ago with a guy who played for BK at Cincy. I asked what he thought and his answer was straight and succinct: "CEO type; not a people person". That fits like a glove. BK can put the program together, recruit good assistants and players, organize everything, deal well with the media, etc but when it comes to reaching into a player's heart and soul, it's not his thing.

smcnd
smcnd

Coach, will Clark ever be the starting ND quarterback?


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