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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

June 16, 2022

He took over an underachieving program and averaged 9.7 wins per season, quite the feat at a school that had not won a national championship since the 1980s.

If this was a Jeopardy! answer, Notre Dame fans might have guessed the question was, “Who is Brian Kelly?”

This is actually referring to former Georgia coach Mark Richt. It would have been more obvious if I added in the two SEC championships he won in 15 seasons there, the first time they won the conference since 1982, but his 9.7 wins per season compared to Kelly’s 9.4 made it even more obvious how similar their two resumes are.

Richt did a lot of very good things at Georgia. He won 10 or more games in a season in 10 of 15 years. They weren’t quite a consistent national power, but they were right below that in the next tier. He signed a ridiculous amount of talent on the recruiting trail as well, including 5-stars like AJ Green and Matthew Stafford.

They got so close to the highest level, but couldn’t quite reach it.

Everyone around the program knew they could level up, especially given the talent in the region every year. Richt consistently signed top-10 classes and five of his last seven were ranked there with none dropping below 12th. He just wasn’t signing top-five classes. Only one of those seven finished that high (fourth in 2009).

His last seven classes overlapped with Nick Saban’s first seven full classes at Alabama. Every single one of them was ranked in the top-five. That was the level Georgia needed to get to in order to be neck and neck with Alabama.

Kirby Smart has taken them there.

He’s racked up six straight top-five classes and Georgia just won their first national championship since 1982. Richt built the foundation and Smart has proved that their recruiting could go up another level.

It’s a bit different situation with Notre Dame and the transition from Kelly to Marcus Freeman, but not that different. Kelly did things that might have seemed unimaginable after a couple of decades of mediocrity (three undefeated regular seasons, five straight seasons of 10 or more wins).

He also had the Irish in the top-15 in recruiting every year in the last seven recruiting cycles, but the highest ranked class he signed was his final one. The 2022 class ranked ninth. And that class primarily belongs to Freeman and the remaining staff. The work Freeman did helped secure the defensive recruits and was what drove that ranking.

There is a long way to go in this 2023 cycle, but there is every indication that Notre Dame is going to sign their strongest recruiting class in a decade. They are on pace to finish with an over 80% blue-chip ratio (percentage of 4 and 5-star recruits signed) for the second straight class and there is zero reason to believe they won’t do that again in 2024.

Smart had bumps along the way with results on the field including an underwhelming first season and a three season hiatus from the College Football Playoff before winning a national championship last season. Freeman could very well suffer some of those same ups and downs as Smart did as a first time head coach.

Smart maintained a level of excellence in recruiting no matter what happened on the field, though. That’s why he was able to accomplish what Richt never could. If Freeman follows that same path when it comes to recruiting top talent, then he’ll have an opportunity to accomplish what Kelly never could.

2. I thought about writing a piece this week about the most important recruits left on the board for Notre Dame, but with cloudiness at quarterback in 2023, I thought I would hold off until we get into July to write that. By then we should have a bit more clarity at that position.

I do want to highlight seven recruits who signal the change in recruiting for Notre Dame.

Those recruits are Keon Keeley‍, Peyton Bowen‍, Caleb Downs‍, Jeremiyah Love‍, Jaiden Ausberry‍, Christian Gray‍, and Samuel M'Pemba‍.

Notre Dame has to fight off the big boys from flipping Keeley and Bowen. To win out for Love, Downs, and M’Pemba, they have to beat Georgia, Ohio State, and Alabama. If they were to sign Ausberry, that’s taking an elite recruit from Louisiana away from LSU. The competition for Gray is Ohio State and LSU.

If Notre Dame is going to win a natty, those are the teams they will have to go through to do it. If they don’t land these players, they will likely have to face a few of them in a CFP matchup. I don’t know if that makes those recruits the most important or not, but at the very least it shows the significance to everyone of what landing those recruits would mean for the Irish.

3. Is there a program that claims itself as “WR U”? Clemson probably has as great of an argument as anyone with the talent that has come out of there over the last 15 years.

What made the recent Clemson offenses so difficult to deal with was that they didn’t just have one number one receiver. They had two, which Notre Dame fans remember vividly back in 2018 when they ran out Tee Higgins and a healthy Justyn Ross on the same squad.

At the moment, Clemson doesn’t have one, let alone two. That could change based on the talent on the roster, four former top-100 recruits who have at least shown flashes of brilliance, but preparing for them doesn’t feel anywhere close to how it feels to prepare for Ohio State with Jaxon Smith-Njiba and Marvin Harrison Jr. ready to blow up this fall.

USC adding Jordan Addison makes them much harder to defend because it was already possible that Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams could emerge as a true number one. They should be closer to the Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-ra St. Brown than when Notre Dame only had to worry about Drake London last year.

It would be fair to suggest that Ohio State will be spending a lot of time over the summer thinking about ways to defend against Michael Mayer, especially on 3rd down. They probably aren’t spending as much time on who Notre Dame has at receiver, but perhaps that can work to Notre Dame’s advantage if Lorenzo Styles can become a true WR1 for the Irish.

If it becomes a Mayer-Styles one-two punch early on this fall, it’s going to open things up in a big way as teams stress trying to defend them. That’s why when we’re naming the most important players on Notre Dame’s roster this season, Styles deserves to be mentioned right near the top.

4. Tyler Buchner has to be right at the top of the list for obvious reasons and I was just thinking about the conversations we were having about him 18 months ago. It centered around whether or not it was a good idea for him to enroll early to practice with Notre Dame that spring or if he should stay in high school to get game reps during California’s spring football season (it was delayed because of Covid).

Maybe it won’t be a topic of interest this fall and it definitely won’t be if he plays well. The reason I was thinking about it is that the topic of rushing a player’s development and putting them in before they are ready is something that only comes up after the fact. It usually happens in professional sports with rookies, but there are freshmen and sophomores who are forced onto the field before they are ready all of the time in college football as well for various reasons.

We know Buchner is talented. Is he ready to be the starter for Notre Dame? If he is, then we can probably look back at his decision to enroll early as the right one.

5. Notre Dame signed five offensive linemen in their 2021 class. They followed that up with another five in the 2022 cycle. Now it looks like they’ll sign five in 2023. They may even decide to take six if they want both Charles Jagusah‍ and Monroe Freeling‍.

16 offensive linemen basically makes up an entire scholarship allotment for the position, which is why so many have asked the question about them taking five or six this cycle. It seems like too much.

We know Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg are in their final seasons at Notre Dame, but there is no one else who is definitely leaving the program after the 2022 season. Depending on how the season goes for them, Zeke Correll and Andrew Kristofic might not be on the 2023 roster. Even if you penciled in that both of them won’t be there, that would still be 17 or 18 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster if they sign five or six.

There’s probably going to be attrition because most of these players were highly ranked recruits and not all of them are going to be in the mix to play over the next couple of years. Then there’s also the possibility that Joe Alt and Blake Fisher could be on a three-and-out trajectory with their Notre Dame careers so this could all look really smart in a couple of years with several strong candidates battling it out to replace those two.

It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out because the entire group will be players who Harry Hiestand inherited and didn’t recruit. That can work out great (hello, Zack Martin and Chris Watt), but it won’t work out for everyone. And when we are looking back at this in a few years, I highly doubt that anyone is going to be mad about them signing too many good O-linemen.

6. Notre Dame is not a member of the ACC in football, but they are going to play at least five ACC teams each season for the foreseeable future. That makes the conference as a whole worth monitoring for me even when Notre Dame might not play a program for three years.

The Irish are recruiting better than most programs in the country at the moment, but they are also in the process of creating a talent gap between themselves and the ACC.

Notre Dame currently has 13 blue-chip recruits (composite 4 or 5-stars) committed in the 2023 cycle. The ACC teams have 18 combined and no team even has half that amount of blue-chips committed. Clemson has six.

Notre Dame signed 19 blue-chips in the last cycle. No ACC team had more than 10.

It’s early and Clemson and Miami in particular (only one at the moment) are sure to add quite a few more 4 and 5-stars, but it’s not a great sign for the ACC to be where they’re at currently in recruiting compared to Notre Dame. We also know that Florida State can be a sleeping recruiting giant and North Carolina under Mack Brown has proven they can land some big time prospects as well.

The question is whether or not they can keep pace with what Notre Dame is doing in this cycle and the next because if they can’t, the Irish are going to have significantly more raw talent on their roster than any ACC opponent in a few years. Marcus Freeman and his staff are working to match what Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State are doing, but in the process of doing so, they might just lap every program in the ACC.

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