Notre Dame has spent the last three seasons building a championship caliber defense, and now it is time for head coach Brian Kelly to fix the offense.
Notre Dame had one of its worst defensive stretches in program history from 2014-16, and those failures held the program back. Following the disastrous 2016 season, Kelly hired Mike Elko and Clark Lea to run the defense, and over the last three seasons the Irish defense has played at a level on par with the nation's premier programs.
Just look at the defensive averages during that stretch, comparing Notre Dame to the nation's "premier" programs (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State) and the other two programs that are also banging on the door, along with the Irish (Oklahoma, Georgia).
Notre Dame's numbers are almost identical to Alabama and Ohio State's, and the Irish have finished with a better scoring defense than Georgia in two of the last three seasons.
There is no doubt that in the three years with Lea running the defense the Irish made huge leaps.
Kelly's task heading into the 2021 offseason is to make the necessary steps needed to do for the offense what we saw on defense. That is to get it on a championship level, which right now it is light years away from being. Just look at how the Notre Dame offense stacks up against the same programs.
The only program to score at the same level as Notre Dame is Georgia, a program that has made zero playoff appearances in the last three seasons despite landing the No. 6 (2016), No. 3 (2017), No. 1 (2018), No. 2 (2019) and No. 1 (2020) recruiting classes in the last five years.
Georgia recruits at an elite level, has an elite level defense, runs the ball extremely well and certainly produces a lot of NFL talent. But why have the Bulldogs failed to make a playoff run in the last three years? Mediocre offense, just like Notre Dame.
Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are all explosive, high-scoring offenses, but they do it differently. Alabama is a good running team, but not an elite running team, but they are explosive in the pass game. Ohio State is also an explosive passing team, but they are a dominant rushing team as well, especially the last two seasons. Clemson is also a balanced team, although it was less so in 2020 compared to previous great Clemson squads.
If you are someone who believes recruiting success equals on-field success, consider that from 2016-2020 the Notre Dame offense signed two five-star players, 30 four-star players and 12 composite Top 100 recruits according to the 247Sports composite ranking.
In that same time, Notre Dame has not signed a composite five-star player on defense, 27 four-star recruits and just five Top 100 recruits. The offense had three Top 50 recruits while the defense didn't have any.
My follow up article to this will dive into specifics of what Notre Dame must do to get its offense to this level, and it won't be a lazy excuse like "recruit better." There are specific changes Kelly must make on offense in order to get that side of the ball playing like a championship unit.
Simply continuing to "do what we do" or "be who we are" isn't going to get it done, no matter how many Will Fuller's or Michael Floyd's or Chase Claypool's or Miles Boykin's they recruit. A philosophical change is needed, and without it the Irish are going to continue lingering in tier two territory as a program.
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