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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

March 25, 2021

Brian Kelly is a top-five coach in college football.

That’s a fact. It’s not debatable.

Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel of The Athletic both had him at number three in their top-25 coaches rankings and it makes sense. He’s 43-8 in the last four years. He’s been to the College Football Playoff in two of the last three. As Mandel pointed out in his blurb about Kelly, he’s won 10 or more games in five of the last six seasons. Notre Dame had only won 10 or more games twice in the previous 16 before he became the head coach.

If you are what your record says you are, then Kelly is a top-five coach. Whether you want to put Lincoln Riley or Ryan Day ahead of him, Kelly is in that mix after the obvious top two of Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney.

“But look at what happened when they got the CFP! They were outclassed. And remember Michigan in 2019 and Miami in 2017? No top-five coach has those kinds of losses on their resume.”

That’s the argument against Kelly that every frustrated Notre Dame fan and avid Notre Dame hater brings up. Those are on his resume and it’s why he’s well below Dabo and Saban.

When examining the record of Riley, Day, Kirby Smart, and Jimbo Fisher, they have some of those same blemishes.

Riley lost to Kansas State in back to back seasons and was blown out by LSU in the CFP in 2019. He’s 0-3 in the CFP.

Day only has two years on the job and would have been my number three. He also got blown out by Alabama in the CFP just like Kelly did this year.

Smart lost by double digits to Alabama and Florida this past fall. He also lost to Will Muschamp’s South Carolina in 2019, got blown out by LSU in back to back years, and lost to Tom Herman’s Texas.

Fisher…do I even need to get into this one? No one in their right mind would rank Fisher ahead of Kelly unless they were looking at what he did with Jameis Winston at Florida State. After Jameis left FSU, he lost to Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech, got boat raced by Bobby Petrino’s Louisville team, and went 5-6 in his final year. One good year at A&M doesn’t put him back into the mix.

Kelly does have a few ugly losses that are part of the last four years. That doesn’t take away from the wins and the overall consistency.

No one gets into any profession with the goal of being third. He wants to be at the top and Notre Dame fans want a coach at the top as well.

Kelly is trying to get there and what he’s done with the program the last few years deserves to be acknowledged. Feldman and Mandel are doing that with an appropriate ranking.

2. Both of their lists do not have an ACC coach outside of Dabo. Mack Brown (North Carolina) and Dave Clawson (Wake Forest) were honorable mentions.

That says a lot about why Notre Dame should win 10 or more games again this fall. It would be a surprise if they didn’t run the table against their ACC opponents even though this doesn’t seem like a roster primed to be a contender out of the gate.

Brown might get North Carolina to become a consistent top-20 program. Mike Norvell, if given proper time at Florida State, could get things rolling back with the Seminoles again. No other program seems like a threat to be great any time soon, though Scott Satterfield at Louisville and Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech may make moves in a few years.

From a football perspective, aligning with the fourth or fifth best football conference in the Power 5 looks like it will continue to play out well for Notre Dame.

3. There was no camp circuit last year for a player like Kyle Hamilton or Michael Mayer to rise up the rankings. We didn’t see anyone from Notre Dame’s 2021 make a huge move because of that.

There is a limited camp circuit this year and I’m not sure if we'll have any Notre Dame commits/targets blow up because of it, but we seem to be in the process of Aiden Gobaira‍ showcasing he is much better than his ranking with his spring football season.

I have him graded out at 90 (4-star) currently. He is playing his way into a possible Fab 50 spot. He’s bigger, more explosive, and has the traits to dominate as a pass rusher.

4. Michigan State signed 18 high school recruits in the 2021 cycle. That all seems pretty normal,

What’s definitely not normal is them taking 11 transfers.

This is all a result of the one-time transfer rule, which is on the verge of being implemented. It would make players eligible immediately regardless of whether they graduated or not.

It’s the first year where the transfer portal has been used this way and it will be interesting to see if a school like Michigan State continues to rely heavily on the transfer portal to fill gaps on their roster. Maybe this is more of a scenario where Mel Tucker took over a program where he didn’t like the roster and wanted more of an immediate talent injection rather than having to develop younger “projects”.

I think there’s a ceiling with most transfers that many have already hit. That’s part of the reason they are transferring. They couldn’t break through it at their previous program.

There are always going to be players who will benefit from a new environment, new scheme, new position coach, or an opportunity to play more. I think Alohi Gilman found the right combination for him when he transferred to Notre Dame and it helped him become an NFL Draft pick.

My assumption is the goal for most of these programs is to build roster depth over having high hopes of multiple NFL Draft picks coming from those transfers. And if programs are just trying to get to bowl games rather than making the CFP, then that strategy seems pretty smart.

This is one reason why I don’t see Notre Dame ever going this heavy with transfers. They recruit and develop well enough to already have strong depth on the roster. Taking less than a handful of transfers to help with depth and competition at a couple of positions is almost always going to be the case for the Irish unless things start slipping back to mediocrity.

5. It really seems crazy to think that August of 2019 is the last time the media got to watch a padded practice at Notre Dame.

Back then there were some freshmen who stood out like Kyren Williams and Isaiah Foskey and there were more than a few who showed exciting flashes. NaNa Osafo-Mensah and Litchfield Ajavon would not be included on that list. Neither of them took a lot of reps when the media was present and neither looked like they were close to contributing that season. It’s no surprise that they redshirted.

Fast forward to almost two years later and there is still very little known about them.

I heard some positive things about Osafo-Mensah last summer, but then an injury didn’t allow him to get into the rotation in 2020. It would help the defensive line depth a lot if he was someone who was pushing at the “big end” this spring. I have no idea if he will, though.

I’m even less certain about Ajavon. I’ve heard zero buzz about him since he arrived on campus. He was at best the sixth safety last season and even though there should be plenty of reps available this spring, I couldn’t tell you if he was someone who had a chance at making a move or not.

It’s an important spring for both of them. They have the potential to be buried at the bottom of the depth chart if they don’t take advantage of their opportunities.

6. Does Notre Dame have a nickel corner on the roster? We won’t find out unless someone tells us this spring, but heading into it, I don’t see a favorite for the job.

Cincinnati had one of the best slot corners in college football last season in Arquon Bush. He’s one of the reasons why they were able to be so successful running their “Dollar” package. It’s going to be difficult for Notre Dame to be as successful running it unless they find a Shaun Crawford replacement.

Marcus Freeman mentioned that their nickel comes out of the corner room and I’m just not sure who that would be out of the corners currently on campus. It may mean that two guys who aren’t on campus yet, JoJo Johnson and Chance Tucker, might get a shot at it if they come out of this spring still searching.

That’s something I think has a good chance of happening unless someone surprises or a former corner like KJ Wallace gets a look.

The Irish went through the entire 2018 season with Nick Coleman and Houston Griffith playing out of position there. They still managed to play outstanding pass defense despite not having the perfect fit at slot corner.

The defense looks like it will be a bit lucky in that they won’t have to face some outstanding slot receivers like Amon-ra St. Brown and Rondale Moore this year. That doesn’t mean they can get away with not developing a slot corner.

Last season they not only had Crawford in sub-packages, but they also had a unique linebacker in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who could cover better than most from that position. Those two are gone.

In today’s college football, slot corner is pretty much the 12th starter on defense. If they can find a couple of candidates to play there this spring, it would be a big step in the right direction because I have no idea who they might be.

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