Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.
GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
Notre Dame underachieved on offense this season, and no one will be able to convince me otherwise. There was too much experience and too much talent for this unit to not be better than it was, especially in big games.
But there are a lot of teams who would like to underachieve by scoring 37.1 points and averaging 6.3 yards per play. Notre Dame, however, was capable of much more. The Irish offense averaged just 26.8 points against the five ranked opponents it faced, and just 20.5 points against the four ranked Power 5 opponents it faced.
Notre Dame will have to replace wide receiver Chase Claypool, and there’s likely a chance that tight end Cole Kmet and quarterback Ian Book both decide to head to the NFL. Even if the “worst-case scenario” happens and both depart, the future looks quite bright for the Notre Dame offense.
Talent/Experience Returns Up Front: All five of Notre Dame’s offensive line starters have eligibility remaining, and the odds are all five will return. Notre Dame also returns Joshua Lugg, who will now have five starts under his belt after filling in for the injured Robert Hainsey. In fact, Trevor Ruhland is the only offensive lineman that runs out of eligibility after this season concludes.
From a talent and depth standpoint, Notre Dame should have one of the nation’s best lines next season. Notre Dame will return 114 combined career starts, and all five of its returning starters, plus Lugg and about four or five back ups, have NFL talent.
The question, however, is will the talent of the line be maximized. That did not happen in 2019, as the Irish line struggled to play with the necessary power, technique and consistency to be a top line. Head coach Brian Kelly needs to take whatever steps necessary to ensure that his unit is prepared to play to its full potential next season. If that happens, the line should serve as the foundation to an outstanding offense.
2018 Class Is Ready To Take Over: We started to see glimpses of it this season, but next fall the talented 2018 recruiting class will take have a huge, huge role to play in the success of the offense. We started to see that late this season, but next year the group is going to be relied upon in a big way.
We started to see that late in the 2019 season. Sophomore Braden Lenzy had 10 touches for 254 yards in the final three games. Stretch that production out over an entire regular season and that’s 1,016 total yards. With a year under his belt Lenzy should become a true game breaker for the Irish offense.
Fellow sophomores Lawrence Keys III and Tommy Tremble combined for 28 catches, 353 yards of offense and four touchdowns. That duo will be relied upon even more next season, and if Tremble’s work ethic and focus starts to match his natural talent he could develop into a game breaker at tight end. If Kmet does not return next season we will see a lot more of fellow sophomore tight end George Takacs, who showed flashes in limited action this season.
The wildcard in this group is wide receiver Kevin Austin, who did not play this season due to an unofficial suspension. Talking to sources around the program, there is a great deal of excitement about what Austin is going to bring to the offense next season. Austin impressed many this season with his improved maturity and work ethic, and his willingness to make the necessary changes to allow his talent to become the storyline.
If Austin can continue making good decisions off the field he will be put in position to become a top weapon on the offense in 2020.
At running back, C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith combined for 335 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season. If Tony Jones Jr. does not return for his fifth season, that duo will play a far more significant role in 2020.
Should Book decide to go to the NFL it would open up an opportunity for 2018 signee Phil Jurkovec at quarterback. Perhaps then the staff would do what it needs to do to develop the ultra-talented quarterback. If Jurkovec became a pet project for the staff, and if the staff really pushed to get him prepared to play his best football he could be a true difference maker due to his competitiveness, arm strength, running ability and natural leadership skills. Plus, Jurkovec has the arm to take advantage of the dynamic speed the 2018 and 2020 classes bring to the offense.
What To Expect?: If Book returns he’ll have a talented arsenal around him and an extremely talented group of blockers in front of him. If he can then play week after week the way he has I recent games the offense could be special.
The question with Book is can he play that way against the better teams on the schedule. Book showed in 2018 and late in 2019 that he can dominate inferior opponents. We still don’t know if he can play that way against defenses like Clemson, Georgia and Michigan.
If Book leaves the offense will lack experience at quarterback, but it won’t lack talent. Assuming Kelly does what needs to be done to get the line playing to its full potential, all the pieces are in place for the Irish to have a truly elite offense next season.
OC Chip Long wants a balanced offense, and on paper he should have a chance to have his most explosive and well-rounded offense at Notre Dame. Considering Notre Dame scored 37.1 points per game this year with all the issues I've written about all season, Notre Dame getting on track with that talent could result in numbers we've never seen before at Notre Dame.
But just going with the status quo next season and just "coaching a little better" isn't going to get this offense playing at an elite level. Kelly needs to be willing to do a true deep dive into the program, be willing to make some hard choices and make the necessary changes at certain positions to get this offense to play at its full potential, which it didn't come close to doing in 2019.
EVEN MORE HELP IS ON THE WAY
The potential for the offense in 2020 will also be aided by players who aren’t yet on the roster, but will be soon. Notre Dame’s 2020 offensive recruiting class has a chance to be special.
St. Louis (Mo.) DeSmet wide receiver Jordan Johnson is a five-star recruit that brings a dynamic all-around skill set to the game. A boundary rotation that consists of Austin and Johnson could do major damage, and both are capable of playing the field positions as well, so they can complement each other.
Johnson is a mature young man with a mature game, which could help him make his presence felt immediately.
Chester (Va.) Thomas Dale running back Chris Tyree is a five-star back in the 247Sports composite rankings. A Top 50 recruit according to ESPN and Rivals, Tyree brings truly elite speed to the game. While he won’t be an every down back early in his career, Tyree will bring big-play talent to the run game, pass game and return game.
Having Tyree and Lenzy in the same offense is something that should excite Notre Dame fans.
Alexandria (Ky.) Covington Catholic tight end Michael Mayer has the size (6-5, 240) and skills to play right away, and if Kmet leaves for the NFL he’ll get a chance to make an early impact.
While he might not get the national love from the recruiting services, Omaha (Neb.) Burke athlete Xavier Watts is a player the Irish staff is extremely excited about. Watts is an outstanding athlete and an even better football player. He has the speed to stretch the field, the ball skills to win one-on-one battles, and his ability to do damage with the ball in his hands is something the Irish offense needs a lot more of.
Watts being an early enrollee gives him much-needed extra time when it comes to learning the nuances of the wide receiver position, which should give the talented incoming freshman a chance to make an early impact.
SOFT SCHEDULES HELPING PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
This was a strange season, I must admit. Not many teams challenged themselves outside of their leagues, which makes it especially hard to gauge just how good some teams are, and the final regular season rankings for the College Football Playoff reflect that.
Utah is the new "hot team" according to many in the media, but do we really know how good Utah is? Yes, they are 11-1 and have great defensive numbers, but who have they played? The only ranked team they played - USC - beat them 30-23 with its third-string quarterback.
The Utes played BYU (7-5), Northern Illinois (5-7) and Idaho State (FCS) in their non-conference. That alone should have them disqualified in my view. There are a lot of teams in the country that could go 11-1 against the soft schedule that Utah played, and I hope the committee does not reward them for that schedule. With Utah checking in at No. 5, it appears they are poised to do just that if Utah beats Oregon and Georgia loses to LSU this weekend.
Part of this is about the lack of respect the Big 12 continues to get, which is incredibly puzzling to me. I'm far more impressed with what I've seen from Oklahoma this season than I am with what I've seen from Utah, and if I was one of the other three Playoff teams I'd much rather see Utah get in than Oklahoma.
Baylor would get a boost by beating Oklahoma this weekend, but Baylor is another squad that had an incredibly weak non-conference schedule. They played Stephen F. Austin (FC), Texas-San Antonio (4-8) and Rice (3-9). The Bears beat Rice by a 21-13 score, which is not a good look.
My concern is that putting Utah or Baylor into the Playoff will encourage teams to continue softening their schedules. The national media is doing a disservice to the game by not focusing more and more on the soft schedules many teams are playing, and it goes beyond Alabama.
The Pac 12 needs to be forced to schedule tougher. Teams like Baylor need to be forced to schedule tougher. I'd rather see a 2-loss Georgia team that owns a non-conference win against a really good Notre Dame squad get in over teams like Utah and Baylor, who scheduled for a better record than their skill would otherwise dictate.
The Pac 12 isn't as good as the Big Ten or SEC, which exposed the soft-schedule squads in their leagues (Alabama, Minnesota, Penn State).
TWEET OF THE WEEK
When the season began, senior Jamir Jones was an afterthought. He was a veteran player without much big-game experience, and the plan was for him to redshirt and come back for depth purposes in 2020. An early season injury to Daelin Hayes thrust Jones into the lineup, and he responded by playing high quality football the rest of the way.
Jones finished the season with 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. His all-around production earned him an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, which is a game where he'll be able to play in front of NFL scouts.
FILM TO WATCH
There isn't any good senior film out yet for 2020 tight end commit Michael Mayer, but this collection of junior clips should give you a taste of why he's such a big pickup, and why he's one of the nation's top recruits.