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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 21, 2021

Before playing Iowa State in their bowl game last season, Brian Kelly talked about breaking into that next echelon in recruiting. They had recruited at a top-15 level, but he thought they could make the jump into the top-five.

They didn’t accomplish that for 2021, but after another strong season, he’s put Notre Dame into the top-five programs in college football in terms of on the field results.

The Irish are fifth in winning percentage over the last four seasons. The only four programs who are better are Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma.

When a team goes 43-8 in the last four years and they’re not landing top-five classes, it means they are doing a pretty good job evaluating and developing. More than just developing individuals, they’ve developed a culture that has allowed them to ascend to be a top-five program for the first time in three decades.

I don’t really think there is an argument that Kelly and the staff haven’t gotten the most, or close to it, from his players. The argument would be that Notre Dame is stuck from anywhere from four to eight because they aren’t landing enough elite recruits who eventually become elite NFL prospects.

The Irish have had sixteen players selected in the last three NFL Drafts.

Alabama has had 31. Ohio State has had 26.

It’s not just the totality of those future NFL picks either. It’s where they were drafted. Notre Dame has had three first round picks and seven in the first three rounds. Alabama has had 11 first round picks and 19 in the first three rounds. Ohio State has had seven first round picks and 17 in the first three rounds.

It’s not surprising because those two teams have consistently recruited at the level that Kelly was referring to. It’s not slowing down either. Alabama has nine players in the ISD Fab 50 I just put out yesterday. Ohio State has six.

Yes, Notre Dame has done a really good job developing players. The problem is that programs like Alabama and Ohio State have done so as well while acquiring more raw talent in recruiting, so the only way to catch up to them is to recruit better.

It isn’t all about landing top recruits. Georgia is a perfect example of this. They are 44-9 over the last four seasons with a slightly worse winning percentage than the Irish, even though they have recruited at a much higher level.

80% of the players they have signed in the previous four cycles were ranked as 4 or 5-star recruits. They just signed seven that I have ranked in my top-50. They signed eight last year, four in 2019, and nine in 2018.

Since 2017, they’ve finished no worse than third in the team composite rankings. Literally every team they play other than Alabama is inferior to them when it comes to raw talent, but they’ve been to the College Football Playoff once and they are a notch below Alabama and Ohio State when it comes to developing NFL Draft picks (six in the first round and 10 in the first three rounds).

Kelly and his staff have been better than Kirby Smart and his staff at getting the most out of their players. And yet, Notre Dame lost two close games to Georgia because they clearly were the less talented team in both of their matchups.

Evaluating and developing is critically important in program building. Kelly, his coaching staff, and the personnel and recruiting department are doing well with this. They have to get better at winning more in recruiting to take the next step and I’m sure Kelly knows it, which is why hiring Marcus Freeman (and potentially more help with the recruiting staff) could end up being more important than it was to make the CFP.

2. So, can Notre Dame ever get close to what Georgia is doing in recruiting?

I don’t think so. Mostly because they aren’t located in Georgia.

Notre Dame only offered 26 of the Fab 50 and some of that may be because of academic fit. Another big part is that they know they don’t have a shot at landing many of these kids from the southeast.

24 of the 50 played high school football in the southeastern United States. That doesn’t even include the seven kids from Texas, but if you add in those, do you know how many have visited Notre Dame’s campus? Three. Tommy Brockermeyer‍, Billy Bowman Jr‍, and JC Latham‍. (Latham is originally from Wisconsin, but played for IMG Academy)

I know someone might be thinking that Covid-19 eliminating the possibilities of visits had a lot to do with it, but these are all top guys who were piling up offers early in the process. Maybe Notre Dame could have had someone like Tristan Leigh‍ (Virginia) visit if there weren’t restrictions, but that might be it.

Obviously Ohio State doesn’t have the same problem of attracting kids from the southeast or from anywhere in the country. They are recruiting nationally better than anyone and they signed one of the top five prospects from Missouri, Virginia, Texas, Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Colorado, and Kentucky. The Buckeyes can go in anywhere and steal a recruit from any local program and they also dominate recruiting in Ohio.

They have less challenges than Notre Dame has, but location is one that doesn’t seem to affect how they recruit at all.

So, can Notre Dame recruit like Ohio State? Maybe not exactly like them, but they can get a heck of a lot closer to them than they are now.

3. Next season will be the first in a while without any players from the 2016 recruiting class on the roster. They won a lot of games and they’re going to finish with anywhere from nine to 11 players drafted by NFL teams.

It was a heck of a run.

Each of Kelly’s first six classes he signed at Notre Dame produced no more than five NFL Draft picks in a single class. That 2016 class was the one that sparked this run into being a top-five program. It’s been his best class and no others have even been close.

4. I never paid too much attention to points per play as a metric for measuring the success of an offense until digging into what Alabama was doing this year. It matters, though, especially for teams who want to win a national championship.

Alabama was first in points per play in 2020. Ohio State and Clemson were in the top-15. Notre Dame was 34th.

The top-four teams in 2019 were four of the top-five in points per play. In 2018 three of the top-four were in the top-four in PPP. Notre Dame, the other playoff participant, was 47th.

Three of the CFP teams were in the top-15 in PPP in 2017. Clemson, who got waxed by Alabama in the semi-final with no Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson, was 49th.

It was different before that season. Alabama was the only playoff team who was in the top-15 in PPP in ‘16. Oklahoma was the only one in ‘15. It’s just another indication that the game has shifted.

Slowing down prolific offenses is important, but scoring on pace with them matters more. Notre Dame has only been in the top-15 in points per play once under Kelly (2019). They were 16th in 2015.

5. Here’s your annual reminder that the coaching carousel is not over and I’m not talking about whatever is going on at Tennessee.

It’s NFL hiring season and coaches are going to be filling out their staffs. It’s also signing day coming up and more coaches are going to leave for their next stop once all the players are signed.

I know every Notre Dame fan will want clarity with the safeties job, recruiting staff hires, and what might happen with Mike Elston in terms of other opportunities, but it’s probably going to be another couple of weeks at the very least before everything starts to settle and that’s not just at Notre Dame.

I’d be surprised if things still seem murky after the first week of February.

6. Remember that story about Bob Diaco visiting Ishaq Williams at 4:30am and convincing him to go to Notre Dame?

Of course you do. It was something that got the fanbase fired up. A young Don Draper clone helped win a big recruiting battle for a coveted prospect. Everyone was excited about what he was doing and thinking this would be a regular occurrence.

As it turned out, Bobby D wasn’t the best recruiter. As time has gone by, his recruiting and defense isn’t looked at nearly as fondly as it was in 2012. Notre Dame fans got excited about a whole lot of nothing. He wasn’t the recruiter they wanted him to be.

Maybe Marcus Freeman will be, though. He’s off to a pretty good start helping to land a commitment from Tyson Ford‍. It’s significant because that wasn’t him closing the deal. It was him flipping the script with someone who looked like he was headed elsewhere.

That’s not common and Notre Dame is going to need that with more than a few of their top targets who they’re in contention for, but not leading for at the moment. Doing that is a very important step in getting them to break into that next echelon that Kelly mentioned.

I don’t know how good Freeman can be having to play catch up for several recruits, but he’s already shown he’s actively engaged in a way that paints an encouraging outlook. He may not ever have a story like that Diaco one, but real recruiting is about the grind and it sounds like he is happy to put in the work.

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