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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 25, 2021
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If there is one thing that this current Notre Dame football season has proven, it’s that a lot can change from September to November. It did for the Irish as the season turned over into the second half and they have cruised in their last three games to clinch another double digit win campaign for Brian Kelly.

The team has evolved and so have the coordinators. In the process it’s become clear, if it wasn’t already, that Kelly made good decisions at two most important positions on his staff.

That’s the one thing he hasn’t been given enough credit for since having to reboot the program after 2016. He hasn’t missed on a coordinator hire and that couldn’t be said for his early years at Notre Dame.

Mike Elko helped rebuild the defense and when he left after one year, they could have been in danger of falling back rather than improving on the foundation that was there. Kelly made the decision to promote Clark Lea, a first time coordinator, and that turned out extremely well over the next three seasons.

Then when Lea left, he went the other direction with an outside hire with Marcus Freeman. After three straight games of not giving up a touchdown and months of exciting results in recruiting, Kelly’s decision has turned out pretty well.

Things didn’t end well with Chip Long, but it can’t be argued that he wasn’t successful during his three years in South Bend. Kelly made the decision to promote from within with Tommy Rees, another coach with zero coordinator experience, and he has overcome plenty of personnel challenges and adapted about as well as any coach could given the circumstances.

I know there will always be fans who will argue Notre Dame can do better and have been unhappy at times with the five coordinators who have worked for Kelly during this recent run. However, it’s undeniable that they have continued to sustain similar success no matter who is running the offense and defense. It’s also undeniable that he could have done a lot worse.

Think about all the “home run hires” that programs have made and the reason they didn’t succeed was largely to do with poor coordinator hires. Tom Herman at Texas and Clay Helton at USC both suffered due to the decline of Todd Orlando as a defensive coordinator. LSU took a nosedive on defense when they replaced Dave Aranda with Bo Pelini, which was the beginning of the end for Ed Orgeron even though it was only a year after winning a national title.

Jimmy Lake was a coveted coach when he stepped in to replace Chris Petersen at Washington. He hired John Donovan to run the offense and they suffered severe regression on that side of the ball. Lake didn’t make it two full years.

There are numerous other examples to choose from, but Kelly isn’t included because he has made choices that have worked out for the program. It’s inevitable that he’ll eventually have to replace Rees and Freeman because they are going to be running programs of their own one day and maybe soon. As any college football fan knows, one bad coordinator hire can flip things in a hurry so Kelly will have to continue to make the right calls when the time comes.

With the run of hires he’s had recently, it would be difficult to question whatever call he makes.

2. James Franklin is a perfect example of how not screwing up a coordinator hire can matter so much. He made great hires earlier at Penn State with his staff. Joe Moorhead made them dynamic on offense and that was a big part of what sparked them winning 42 games over four years.

They dipped back down to reality the last couple of seasons and have gone 11-9 and are more than likely going to have to hire their third offensive coordinator in three years. Despite that, Franklin just leveraged openings at other big schools to get a 10-year contract extension.

That’s college football.

He has taken PSU to three New Year’s Six bowl games and they’re the only team in the Big Ten that routinely plays tight games against Ohio State. I guess the administration is banking on them being close and think Franklin can get them over the hump.

Giving someone a contract extension for the next decade when another poor hire at offensive coordinator could see them spiral down further in the Big Ten feels like the kind of thing that could come back to bite them in a big way. His new deal and Mel Tucker’s nine year extension might be the way things are headed with coaching contracts, but it also could be the kind of thing that stories are written about in a few years when schools are stuck with bad situations because they can’t afford the buyout money.

3. I’m not going to pretend that Notre Dame consistently gets shafted with post-season awards when they’ve had three players win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, had Tyler Eifert win the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, and had Manti Te’o win multiple awards for his play.

Even this year Kyle Hamilton was named a finalist for the Bednarik Award and he’s only played in six full games. They aren’t overlooked every year at every position.

That doesn’t make it any less stupid that Kyren Williams didn’t even get named a semi-finalist for the Doak Walker Award or that Michael Mayer wasn’t named a finalist for the Mackey. The only explanation is that many of the people who vote for those awards don’t actually watch the games.

I’m aware that none of this matters in the long run. Zack Martin never was named an All-American, but he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame career as an NFL player. Quenton Nelson somehow didn’t win the Outland Trophy and it doesn’t seem all that important as he continues to rack up All-Pro selections.

It’s just incredible to me that two players who are amongst the best at their position in college football aren’t being recognized for it when they should be.

4. I don’t think there has been a week that has gone by in the past month where someone doesn’t ask Mike and I on Power Hour or the post-game show about the configuration of the offensive line next year. It has to be the number one topic that Notre Dame fans are interested in.

I haven’t seen many people talk about cornerback next year and that’s a spot that could get very interesting.

Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart return. The staff may see if TaRiq Bracy is interested in coming back as well. Behind that group, it’s more of a mystery, especially after Ramon Henderson made what looks like a permanent move to safety.

We don’t know anything about the freshmen group because none of them have played this fall. Notre Dame is set to sign multiple players who project to play corner in the 2022 cycle, but how ready each of them will be to contribute is unknown at the moment.

Depth at cornerback in 2022 is not something anyone can feel great about right now. That can change pretty quickly once more senior film comes out and we get into spring ball, but I think we’ll learn everything we need to know about how the coaching staff feels based on if they are pursuing a Nick McCloud or two in the transfer portal.

5. I still would like to see more of Rylie Mills rushing the passer on third down for Notre Dame before this season is over. I believe he earned it with not just his play in the Virginia game, but what he has done rushing the passer in total this season.

PFF has him sixth in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) in pass rush win percentage for interior defensive linemen. He had two more pressures against Georgia Tech.

I think Mike Elston needs to find a way to get him at least a handful of pass rush opportunities working on third down this week and in the postseason.

6. Notre Dame came into the 2021 season ranked 124th in returning production. I don’t need to list all of the injuries they’ve had, but add that into the equation as well when looking at what was returning and what expected production was for players who haven’t been available.

When taking all of the factors into consideration, I know I’m very thankful I get to cover a 10-1 football team that still has an outside shot at making the College Football Playoff when they could have been Stanford instead (122nd in returning production).

This season looked like it was going sideways several times and what we’ve seen is a team that has improved each month and is playing their best ball at the right time of year. I don’t take that for granted when I know how different it is when the team isn’t playing well.

I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving with family and friends. Make sure to enjoy the feast tomorrow and expect to see the Notre Dame running game feast on a bad Stanford squad on Saturday night.

 
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