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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 19, 2019

I wasn’t at all surprised that no commitment wavered after Notre Dame parted ways with Chip Long. It’s not that they wanted to see Long go or that he didn’t make a connection with some of them. It has everything to do with the staff taking an approach where they are selling the entire package of Notre Dame rather than relying on how a player might fit into the offense.

And let’s be honest, Notre Dame landed a bunch of dudes who have the skills to thrive in any offense. That’s a big reason why the new offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, whether it comes from within the program or outside of it, is going to be set up to succeed right away.

He’ll inherit a bunch of pieces who may be too talented to keep off the field.

No one will be surprised if Jordan Johnson‍ is making big plays from day one. Chris Tyree‍ might take a few long runs to the house next September. Michael Mayer‍ is walking into a deep tight end room and is still going to compete for playing time immediately. Xavier Watts‍ is an athlete who would be talked about much more if those other guys weren’t in this class.

That’s the skill guys who could play right away. That’s not even getting into the Elite 11 quarterback, Drew Pyne‍, who will be on campus learning the offense in January or the best pair of tackles any program signed other than Georgia.

This is the best collection of talent on offense that the Irish have signed in over a decade. The new coordinator will have them in addition to five returning starters on the offensive line, an explosive receiver, an All-American candidate at tight end (if he stays), and at least a couple of backs who can play in all situations.

That’s not even bringing up the quarterback who accounted for 37 touchdowns last season. Oh, and there’s a handful of studs who are already committed in the 2021 class and the most talented receiver on the team is returning from suspension.

That’s a very long way of saying that this is a very attractive situation for any coach to want to be a part of. It’s why I don’t believe that Brian Kelly is blowing smoke that people have reached out to him about their interest in the job immediately after it was announced that Long was gone.

With all of those pieces, it’s imperative that Kelly gets the offensive coordinator hire right. The early signing period allows for all of the recruits to be locked in and Kelly can take his time making the call on who it should be.

It doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be rushed. Whether it’s one or two guys already on staff (it worked very well for Clemson) or bringing in someone from the outside (think Bob Stoops hiring Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma), there is no obvious answer. But if Kelly gets it right, then the offense finally has a chance to take off and be better than it has ever been in the last decade.

2. After the final players sign over the next couple of days and then again at the start of February, Notre Dame will end up with a class that will be around 10th in the country in average grade per recruit and overall in the team rankings.

I always say that the team rankings are incredibly flawed because it doesn’t address if a team met all of its needs and that kind of leads into what this class was missing for Notre Dame.

They landed plenty of elite talent, but if they had that one more explosive receiver like a Jalen McMillan‍ it would have been huge. I also thought they needed to take one more offensive lineman and Jonah Monheim‍ would have been a perfect last minute addition. Unfortunately that didn’t work out.

Not taking a linebacker is going to be interesting to look back on in a few years as to whether it was the right call or not, but I can understand right now why they didn’t. The bigger issue on defense was at defensive back. I felt it was important to land at least one elite corner who they know could compete right away and they didn’t get that guy.

They were able to get Jalen Kimber‍ on campus. He signed with Georgia and was never going to leave the south. It’s a shame because I believe he could have competed to start immediately for the Irish.

They were in it for Clark Phillips, but as that recruitment went along it became clear he wasn’t going to be a fit. That was pretty much the list of elite guys they were in on and that’s partially because there weren’t as many elite prospects during this cycle.

I know we’ll get into 2021 a lot further in the next month, but I think it’s obvious that corner is going to be very important for Notre Dame in this next cycle.

3. I don’t want it to come off like I don’t like the prospects Notre Dame signed at corner in this class. Ramon Henderson‍ is a critical piece that has an awesome combination of size and speed. He made huge strides as a senior.

He’s also important because his best position in college may be wide receiver. Having him as an athlete may mean they give Watts a shot to play on defense. If they didn’t land Henderson, it might not have been an option because it might leave them short on offense.

The other three corners in this class have the potential to develop into good players.

Clarence Lewis‍ is the most advanced out of the group. He gets his hands on the football and is a strong tackler. Landen Bartleson‍ is a big and fast kid who is only scratching the surface playing defense. Caleb Offord‍ has the size and instincts that could see him excel on the boundary.

My issue with them is that I don’t think any of this group of five will be ready to help the 2020 defense in a significant role and they might need one of them to do so. Julian Love was an All-American level player as a sophomore, but even he wasn’t ready to be a starter or play as much as he did as a true freshman.

Even if one of these corners is the next Love for the Irish, I don’t see them being ready to play a lot this fall.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Henderson, Watts, and Offord will all be on campus this spring as early enrollees so we’ll see if they can surprise.

4. Matt Freeman and I were talking yesterday about Henderson’s size at corner and the size of the corners they signed in general. Obviously not all of these guys are going to hit at Notre Dame, but it’s important if a couple can and eventually be quality starters because of what the defense is going to face in a couple of years.

In 2022, when this group will be juniors or redshirt sophomores, they’ll have to go up against Ohio State. The same Ohio State that just signed a ridiculous group of big and fast wide receivers. They’ll probably add a few more of them before then and before they play Notre Dame again in 2023.

The Irish also face Clemson in both of those seasons on top of having to play USC every year. They can’t get away with being average at corner playing those programs in six games over two seasons. That’s why it’s important to target size and speed at the position and then obviously develop those players once they get on campus.

It’s also why moving Cam Hart might not sound as crazy as it seemed when we first heard it given his combination of size and speed.

It’s funny that Brian Kelly was interviewed by Pete Thamel before this season and talked about the need to add more receivers to go toe to toe with Clemson and Alabama. He wasn’t wrong, but I kept waiting for him to mention corners to cover their receivers, especially after Love went down in the Cotton Bowl and it changed the game.

5. All of the talk last offseason was about closing the talent gap between the top teams and if Notre Dame could do that. The Irish needed more elite players and everyone knew it.

Well, I have them signing four players in the ISD Fab 50 (Tyree, Jordan Botelho, Mayer, and Johnson). Tosh Baker‍ just missed making it for me (I have him 53rd). They only signed one last cycle so it’s definitely progress.

But when you consider what Clemson did, eight of the Fab 50, they aren’t really coming back towards Notre Dame in terms of talent. Neither is Alabama with five. Or Georgia with six. Or Ohio State with five. Those programs all have a bunch of other top-100 level kids in their classes as well.

The talent gap might always be wide between these programs and everyone. They aren’t slowing down any time soon in recruiting.

The good news is that Notre Dame already has five commitments who have a shot at making into my initial 2021 ISD Fab 50 (three are locks to make it). 2021 could be the cycle where things start to even out a lot more for the Irish.

6. While those teams aren’t slowing down, USC has considerably when it comes to adding elite talent. Though they held onto Monheim, which hurts because he gets after it, they missed on their big targets today and with their 11 who signed, they’re currently 78th and dead last in the Pac-12 in the team recruiting rankings.

They could go on a run before February and still have a ton of holes to fill on their roster. This was after they dipped in recruiting last cycle when they finished third in the Pac-12. That was considered a disaster for them and now they are stuck in the basement.

Keeping Clay Helton could end up working out okay for them in 2020 on the field. They won’t be lacking for talent even after losing receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman or if left tackle Austin Jackson declares for the NFL Draft (he’s projected to be a first round pick). But when you whiff this bad in one class, it can be crippling for the future.

Notre Dame fans have experienced this (thanks, Ty). So have several other programs.

There is going to be a year when USC’s 2018 season is going to look pleasant by comparison even if USC has a transcendent class in 2021. This current class will definitely come back to bite them down the road. I can only imagine what the reaction will be like when that happens.

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