Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football
This season has been quite frustrating for me as an outside observer and analyst of Notre Dame’s football program. I will dive into that next week once the regular season is completed.
Having said that, if Notre Dame beats Stanford on Saturday it will give the Irish a 10-2 regular season. Take away for a minute the conversation on expectations or any other subjective analysis, let’s look at what a 10-2 season would mean for Notre Dame.
Should the Irish win Saturday it would mark the first time since 1988-89 that Notre Dame won 10 games in the regular season in back-to-back seasons. It would give Notre Dame 10 wins in a season for the third-straight season, something that it has not done since 1991-93.
Notre Dame has won 18 straight games at home, which is the third-longest home-winning streak for the Irish since it moved into Notre Dame Stadium back in 1930. Only Clemson, UCF and Ohio State have active streaks that are longer.
There is some context needed here that will be addressed in the offseason, but 18 straight wins is 18 straight wins.
Notre Dame defeated its last three opponents by 31 points (Duke, 32 points (Navy) and 33 points (Boston College). I was reading through the Notre Dame game notes and saw the current streak of three wins by at least 30 points marks the first time since 1989 the Irish accomplished this.
When your program is accomplishing things on the field it has not done in over 20 years there needs to be a level of celebration for that success.
The senior class especially deserves a great deal of credit for the turnaround. This group was a part of the 4-8 disaster, and many of the current starters were either rotation players that season, or in some cases starters.
In the three years since, the 2016 class has been a crucial factor in Notre Dame going 31-6 in the last three seasons. Fifteen players from that class have either started games or have been crucial role players during Notre Dame’s current 21-3 stretch of football.
The reason this matters is that I am seeing a lot of negativity surrounding the program right now, and I get it. I am frustrated by certain things as well, but I also believe there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to Notre Dame football. It seems that right now the debate is about “Hey, this is great, nothing is wrong” and “This stinks, fire everyone.”
Neither take is appropriate in my view. We can sit here and demand more while also enjoying the progress that has been made.
When was the last time a Notre Dame fan could justifiably be frustrated with a 10-2 season, or a stretch of 22-3, which is what Notre Dame will be with a win on Saturday? There are certainly fans who were frustrated every season the Irish didn’t win a title, or win 10 games, but when was it justified based on the makeup of the current program?
When was the last time Notre Dame fans could justifiably look at the program and say, “Yeah, we should have been in the Playoff this year.” Not in theory, but based on the makeup of the current roster.
That is where the current program is. We will discuss in the offseason the importance of taking the next step, and whether or not the program, as currently constructed, is capable of getting to that step.
But from 1994 to 2016 the reality is Notre Dame winning 10 games was a rare “we are back” moment for Irish fans, and it was never built upon. It was a reminder of what the program used to be, and what the program might be again some day. During that stretch of 23 seasons, Notre Dame won 10 or more games just four times.
A win Saturday means the Irish will have reached that mark three times in the last four seasons. That is clear progress, and progress that should have fans once again believing that Notre Dame is capable of being one of the nation’s elite football teams … on the field.
Brian Kelly has finally built the program to be one where a 10-2 season is looked at with understandable frustration. While not asking you to dismiss your frustration, or asking you to ignore areas where improvement is still needed, I would encourage you this Thanksgiving week to also take pleasure in the fact that Notre Dame has come as far as it has the last three seasons.
Over the last three seasons you’ve watched your favorite football team win 31 times. You haven’t been able to watch that many wins in that short of a period of time in over 25 years.
The bar for Notre Dame should be high, and it should be about competing for championships, and that is not where the program is right now. Notre Dame will not be a championship team in 2019, but that should not take away from just how far the program has come, and it should not keep fans from celebrating the players who had such a vital role in making that happen.
Demand excellent, strive for perfection, hold accountable those who are holding the program back … but also praise those who helped get the program to the level where talking about championships is no longer a “Remember when” moment, but a “It needs to happen” discussion.
D-LINE RECRUITING CONTINUES POSITIVE TRENDS, BUT MORE IS NEEDED
Defensive line recruiting was such a major point of frustration for so many years. Even during the early years of Kelly’s tenure, when Notre Dame was landing some really outstanding linemen, there were years when the misses overcame the successes. The line constantly was left short on numbers, and at times short on impact talent.
The 2016 defensive line class has been so instrumental in the team’s success the last two years thanks to a five-man haul that has dominated the defensive end depth chart for the last three seasons.
But that year was also marred by the fact it failed to land a single defensive tackle. The year prior, the Irish landed a future All-American defensive tackle in Jerry Tillery, but it came up empty at defensive end.
In recent seasons we have seen this stabilize, and the results are starting to show on the field. During this season Notre Dame has lost two very talented ends in Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes. Defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola missed Saturday’s game against Boston College and starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa went out early in the third quarter with an injury.
It wasn’t that long ago that just one or two of those injuries would have devastated the line, and the defense as a whole. But on Saturday, without Okwara, Hayes, Ademilola and with Tagovailoa-Amosa only playing a half of football, the Notre Dame defensive line dominated.
A recent run of successful recruiting, combined with the brilliant DE class of 2016, has fueled that resurgence.
Notre Dame landed Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, the current starters, as part of the 2017 class, which signed just months after Notre Dame wrapped up a 4-8 season.
The 2018 class saw Notre Dame land Ademilola, a Top 100 defensive tackle. On Saturday, fellow 2018 signees Ja’mion Franklin and Ovie Oghoufo were part of the line rotation that obliterated the potent BC ground attack. We also saw Justin Ademilola late in that game, another part of the 2018 class.
Freshman defensive tackle Jacob Lacey - ESPN’s No. 115 overall player in the 2019 class - has played outstanding football the last two weeks. When Tagovailoa-Amosa went down - and with Ademilola already out - Notre Dame called upon another freshman, Hunter Spears, another ESPN300 recruit. Despite playing just the third game of his career, Spears showed flashes of becoming an impact player down the road.
Outside of the seniors - Kareem, Okwara, Hayes, Ogundeji - the most naturally gifted player on the defensive line is freshman end Isaiah Foskey, a young athlete that screams “future high draft pick.” The majority of the Brian Kelly-era was such that a player like Foskey would have played as a freshman out of necessity, but the current depth chart is such that he has only played three games thus far in the season.
The same could be said for another freshman end, NaNa Osafo-Mensah, a Top 250 recruit according to 247Sports.
In most years, losing players like Kareem, Okwara and Jones in the same season would devastating for Notre Dame, but the current roster is loaded, and if developed properly it should be poised for years of success.
There is more help on the way.
2020 drop end commitment Jordan Botelho is the No. 42 player in the country according to 247Sports. The Honolulu St. Louis standout is expected to be an early enrollee, and he’ll certainly get a chance to find a role in the Irish defense very early in his career.
2020 defensive end/defensive tackle commit Rylie Mills is ranked as the No. 139 player in the country by ESPN and No. 160 by Rivals. A powerful young defender (6-5, 270), Mills has the skills to thrive at either strong side end or defensive tackle during his career.
2020 nose tackle commit Aidan Keanaaina isn’t ranked, but Rivals grades him as a four-star recruits, and the Denver (Colo.) Mullen standout brings a big presence (6-3, 305) to the future of the nose tackle rotation.
The Irish also have a commitment from 6-7, 245-pound German end Alexander Ehrensberger, and the only committed defensive lineman in the 2020 class, Gabriel Rubio, happens to ranked as the No. 86 player in the country by Rivals.
Is there room for even better recruiting? Of course, but what we have seen the last five seasons has been arguably the best stretch of defensive line recruiting in over twenty years, and it has Notre Dame poised to continue being a strong defensive football team for years to come.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Senior Day was always an emotional one for me as a coach. As you watch young men who spent years growing as people and as players, you have a blend of excitement for their future but also sadness, knowing your time around them has come to a close.
You will always remember the last game you played in your home stadium. On Saturday, the Notre Dame seniors certainly celebrated their final game in impressive fashion.
FILM OF THE WEEK
I mentioned Botelho earlier, and this highlight clip should give you a sense of why the Irish staff made him such a high priority for the 2020 class.