Head coach Brian Kelly has Notre Dame on the cusp of getting back to being an elite football program for what it does on the field. After a 33-6 stretch the last three seasons, Notre Dame enters the 2020 with a depth chart and schedule that gives the program its best chance to compete for a title since 2015.
It’s time for Notre Dame to get over the hump. If not now, when can it be expected under Kelly?
Following the 2019 season, Kelly made a decision that we will look back on as the brilliant move that led the program to taking that final step, or the latest coaching hire that ultimately led to his inability to get the program over the hump.
That decision was replacing offensive coordinator Chip Long with Tommy Rees, a 27-year old with three seasons of experience as a Power 5 football coach
There wasn’t a candidate out there who Kelly knows better, and there is clear conviction in this decision by the Irish head coach. Kelly coached Rees for four years and hired him to coach his quarterbacks prior to the 2017 season when Kelly’s job was on the line. Kelly clearly believes Rees is capable of building on the strong foundation that Long laid down.
Rees will now be tasked with getting the offense on the level that will allow the Irish to compete for championships, both in its play on the field and from a recruiting standpoint. If Rees can do that this will be a genius hire by Kelly. If he can’t, it will prove to be as limiting to the 2020 team as having Brian VanGorder running the defense was to the 2015 squad.
The timing could not be better for Rees, who inherits an offense that returns a 23-game starter at quarterback, six offensive linemen that have a combined 114 career starts, and a group of talented skill players at wide receiver and tight end.
If Rees is the coach Kelly believes he is, the young coordinator will quickly become one of the nation’s hot coaching names. Success will mean Rees performing at a high level in three key areas. Recruiting, on-field success and being able to develop the quarterbacks.
ON-FIELD IMPROVEMENT FOR THE OFFENSE
Under Long, Notre Dame had a better scoring offense, rushing offense, total offense and red zone offense than it had the previous seven seasons. Notre Dame showed growth and improvement under Long, but Rees is being tasked with taking things to the next level.
Notre Dame needs to be more explosive offensively, it needs to be a stronger rushing team than it was the two previous seasons, and it absolutely MUST play better in big games. Defense might still get a team to the College Football Playoff, but offense is what is needed to actually win the championship.
There have been six national title games in the playoff era, and only once has the winner scored below 35 points, and four of the six winners have scored at least 42 points. Winners have averaged 39 points in the title game.
Notre Dame scored 14 points in its 2012 national title game loss and three points in its CFP loss to Clemson. It is now up to Rees to get the offense to play well enough to not only get the Irish into the playoff, but to also be competitive once they arrive.
If Rees is going to have the offense playing at that level it means he’ll need to effectively match wits with some of the games best defensive minds.
Rees will do battle with Clemson’s Brent Venables, Jim Leonhard at Wisconsin, Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh and Todd Orlando at USC. If the Notre Dame offense performs well in those contests it will lend a great deal of credibility to the notion that Rees is in fact the rare young coach that is ready to take on this kind of responsibility.
I expect Notre Dame to still put up very good numbers this season, but success for Rees will be determined by how the offense performs in the biggest games on the schedule. It’s the big games that matter when you in year 11 of a head coach’s tenure and are a preseason Top 10 program.
Doing so will help Rees to immediately develop a reputation as one of the best minds in the game. Falling short will be a black eye for Kelly, who chose a young and talented, but incredibly inexperienced coach over far more more experienced and proven coaches.
The quarterback play at Notre Dame the last decade has been spun a lot of different ways the last decade, and there have been a lot of excuses made. The simple truth, however, is that overall quarterback play has not been championship caliber, and the longer a quarterback stays in the system the less effective he has become.
Rees has a chance to change that, and that will have as much of an impact on Notre Dame’s 2020 season as anything else the first-year coordinator does with the offense. If he can get starter Ian Book to step up his game, combine the best parts of his 2018 and 2019 performances, and get the third-year starter to play well against the top teams on the schedule the Irish offense will be very hard to stop.
RECRUITING IS KEY
Long did a brilliant job recruiting during his tenure at Notre Dame, especially at the skill positions. During his brief tenure the Irish loaded up on talented and athletic wide receivers. The Irish landed Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and others at wide receiver, and the tight end recruiting was truly outstanding. Notre Dame had arguably the best tight end haul in both the 2018 and 2020 classes.
Notre Dame had Top 100 recruits in the 2021 class at quarterback (Tyler Buchner), wide receiver (Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie), offensive tackle (Blake Fisher) and tight end (Cane Berrong) prior to Long’s departure.
Since Kelly dismissed Long back in January, Notre Dame has added three-star offensive lineman Patrick Coogan, but has lost Colzie and Greg Crippen (by choice). Notre Dame lost out on its top running back target, several top offensive line targets and is trailing other programs for most of its top wide receiver targets.
The Irish went into the 2021 recruiting cycle believing it had a chance to land an elite recruiting class. Things have been trending in a very bad direction in the last five months.
If the offense is going to get back on track, Rees will need to play a major role. If the offense falls short it will raise legitimate concerns about the decision to make this hire at a time when Notre Dame was so close to taking the final step needed to be a championship caliber program.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
There is a great deal of pressure on Rees, and Kelly for making this hire. In a normal situation, a coach this young and with this little amount of experience - no matter how bright and talented he might be - would get a bit of a grace period, but Rees cannot be afforded that kind of growing time.
When a program is coming off a 23-3 two-year stretch that already included one College Football Playoff berth, and you return a veteran quarterback, five starters along the offensive line and the kind of speed and playmaking potential the Irish offense brings back, there can be no drop off on offense. It’s time for Notre Dame to produce an offense that matches the level of recruiting we’ve seen on that side of the ball in recent seasons.
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