Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football
BIGGEST QUESTIONS FACING THE NOTRE DAME OFFENSE
There are four big questions surrounding the Notre Dame offense as it gets ready to start winter workouts in preparation of spring ball, which then of course leads to the 2021 season.
How effectively those questions get answered will go a very long way towards determining how good Notre Dame will be in the fall.
1. Will Kelly allow Rees to make the necessary philosophical changes - Head coach Brian Kelly has stubbornly advocated for a very complex, pro-style offense that has stunted the growth and development of the unit. While other top programs are now pushing in the mid to high 40s in scoring, Notre Dame has been stuck in the middle to low 30s in all but one season, and blowouts over New Mexico and Bowling Green were a reason for those numbers.
North Carolina can score over 40 points per game against an ACC schedule, but the Irish are barely past 30 points per game.
While offensive coordinator Tommy Rees gets the brunt of the criticism from those who don't accept that Notre Dame is relegated to being a mediocre scoring offense, the reality is Rees is running Kelly's offense.
It is well beyond time for Notre Dame to come into the modern age of offensive football, to open things up, start using its personnel more effectively and finally start putting pressure on defenses.
Will Kelly allow Rees and the offensive staff to make the necessary philosophical and schematic changes that are needed for this to happen? I have no idea, but if he doesn't the rest of the questions really won't matter, as the program will already have an arbitrary and unnecessary ceiling placed on it.
If Kelly lets Rees open things up and make those changes this offense could explode the next couple of seasons, which would make Notre Dame very, very dangerous.
2. Can the rebuilt offensive line play at a high level - Notre Dame must replace four starting offensive linemen, and it's not just four starters, it's four very good starters who all started at least 30 games in their career. The majority of the players in contention for starting roles are largely inexperienced players.
If Notre Dame decides to more Jarrett Patterson away from center, which would be a smart idea, then you'll see five new players at each spot. There is certainly talent returning, and Patterson returns with 22 career starts and Joshua Lugg has eight career starts at three different positions.
Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and graduate assistant Chris Watt will have their hands full this spring as they try to quickly figure out who is going to play where. The young up-and-comers need to put in serious work this offseason, and the staff will need to quickly get them up to speed.
The fact Notre Dame is going to be so inexperienced in 2021 is yet another reason why the offensive philosophy must change. Notre Dame's current philosophy is dependent upon the line playing at an elite level. When the 2018 line played good but not elite football the result was an offense that averaged just 31.4 points per game, and 13.5 points against the two Top 30 defenses the Irish faced.
One of the best parts of the changes I am advocating for is that it doesn't require elite line play. I'll have a breakdown on that coming out very soon, and I'll explain how that is at that time.
3. Are Austin and Lenzy finally going to stay healthy and live up to their potential - Notre Dame has plenty of talent returning at wide receiver, certainly enough for Notre Dame to score a lot of points on most of the teams they play next season. Rising sophomores Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle need to get their opportunities, the Irish welcome a talented group of incoming freshman receivers and players like Avery Davis, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr. are all talented players, and the tight end group is loaded.
But let's be honest, the difference between Notre Dame being really good at wide receiver and Notre Dame having a wide receiver unit that dominates opponents is whether or not both Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy are able to get healthy, stay healthy and finally turn their tantalizing potential into production.
Austin is a unique combination of size, athleticism and playmaking skill, but he has just six career catches and has never been more than a part-time rotation player. Its time for him to finally put it all together.
Lenzy showed off his home run skills in 2019, when he averaged 23.1 yards per catch and 15.4 yards on 13 rushes. That season Lenzy scored on plays of 70 yards, 61 yards, 51 yards and 22 yards. That means Lenzy had as many 50+ yard touchdowns in 2019 (on 34 touches) as the entire Notre Dame roster had in 2020.
4. Will we see a youth movement - Part of the philosophical change needed is creating an offense that is more learnable for younger players, and then not holding a freshman or sophomore to the same standard as they do veterans, and sometimes an even higher standard.
There is no excuse not to have talented players like Chris Tyree, Johnson, Watts, Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie as key parts of the offense. It doesn't mean they stat and play every snap, but they need to play, they need opportunities and they need touches.
I DON'T GET THE NORTH CAROLINA HYPE
I absolutely love Mack Brown as a coach and person, and I think he's done a great job rebuilding North Carolina. What I don't get, however, is the unwarranted hype that continues to be placed on the Heels. North Carolina had a quality 2020 campaign, finishing 8-4 and losing to Top 10 teams Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
The backbone of that success was a two-headed monster at running back in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who both rushed for over 1,000 yards. It was also fueled by Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome at wide receiver. North Carolina needed every bit of that success on offense because the defense gave up 29.4 points per game.
Even Brian VanGorder never gave up 29 points per game when he was at Notre Dame.
With all those losses on offense, and with the lack of success we saw on defense, it blows my mind that North Carolina is getting so much Top 10 love from the websites that are doing way-too-early Top 25s. ESPN has the Heels ranked 7th (ND is 15th) and SI has them ranked 11th (ND is 10th).
Look, if I was a North Carolina fan I'd be thrilled with the job Coach Brown is doing, and there will come a time in the future that North Carolina is that kind of team, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Chapel Hill, especially on defense. UNC has a lot more to prove before it should get that Top 10 love.
The 2021 schedule doesn't look overly daunting outside of a road trip to South Bend, but it will still be challenging for a team with a poor defense. UNC must travel to Virginia Tech, Pitt, NC State and Georgia Tech (who is also ascending), and it hosts Florida State and Miami.
FREEMAN ALREADY HAVING A BIG IMPACT
Notre Dame picked up a big commitment this week when it landed 2022 defensive end Tyson Ford. Two weeks ago the Irish had little chance, and now he's in the class. Mike Elston kept the Irish in the ball game for a long time, but it wasn't until Marcus Freeman was hired and turned up the heat that fortunes changed.
Freeman has been going off on the recruiting trail already, and the Irish need it to pay huge dividends in the 2022 class, especially at linebacker and in the secondary.
My excitement about Freeman being hired was first and foremost about his ability as a coach. He's intelligent, poised and has put a tremendous defense on the field in recent seasons. His units are fundamentally sound, aggressive and versatile, traits that are vital to success against high-powered modern offenses.
The second reason, however, was that he would be a huge recruiting upgrade over Clark Lea. Coach Lea was an excellent defensive coordinator and his ability to evaluate players is impressive, but he wasn't a grinder on the trail and too often the Irish focused on high-upside projects and didn't push hard enough for already established top players.
Freeman appears willing to do both, and he's already made an impact when it comes to landing a top player. If he can build on that, he'll leave a long-lasting mark on the Notre Dame defense, even if he only stays for 2-3 seasons.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Tyson Ford put out a really cool tweet/video after he committed to Notre Dame. You need to check this out. Very, very impressive young man:
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
We launched a YouTube channel at Irish Breakdown, which you can find HERE.
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