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Notre Dame Football

Championship Caliber?

April 12, 2023
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Maybe as the years go on, Notre Dame fans will end up appreciating the work Brian Kelly did to leave the football program in a better spot than what he inherited. My guess is that will only happen once he ends up retiring and stops talking to the media because even though it may not be his intent to insult his former program by trying to sell why he’s at LSU, he does a pretty poor job of it each time he’s asked about it.

I don’t think anyone should get too emotional about it. Fans should move on and support the current guy instead (I think the majority are doing that). I’m only bringing up Kelly because the roster that he and his staff recruited that was inherited by Marcus Freeman is pertinent to thes questions NDTom88 asked Mike, Matt, and I for Power Hour this week:

What position is farthest away from being championship caliber? Is there a path at this position to be average to above average by end of the season? Is recruiting at the position good enough to be elite down the road?

We answered it on the podcast and you can go listen to our answers, but I thought the question was worth examining a bit further.

What exactly is “championship caliber” at each position?

The only way to find that out is to look at recent champions and examine how each position looked on those rosters. That’s something I went into a bit with a piece I wrote three months ago on what it takes to win a title in the College Football Playoff era. It mostly looked at how a team performs with things like F+ ratings on offense and defense, number of explosive plays, and percentage of blue-chip recruits (4 and 5-stars) recruited by programs, but I also looked at the personnel for three key positions.

I’m going to expand on that a bit and we can start with the skill positions on offense. As a reminder, the champions since 2014 have been Ohio State (2014), Alabama three times (2015, 2017, and 2020), Clemson twice (2016 and 2018), LSU (2019), and Georgia twice (2021 and 2022).

Skill positions

As noted in that piece, top end skill position talent on offense matters.

Every single team has had top end talent at wide receiver or tight end. Georgia might not have had the receivers this year, but they have Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington who both project to be high picks at tight end. It’s probably unnecessary to go over the lists for each of these teams and list every single who was drafted in rounds 1-3 by an NFL team, but every Notre Dame fan knows that this is an area where the Irish need to catch up in a significant way.

If we’re going to add running backs to the equation, at least three NFL Draft picks at wide receiver, tight end, and running back has been an absolute minimum for CFP era champions. Every single team has had at least one first round pick (or projected first round pick in the case of Georgia tight end Brock Bowers) at one of those three positions and the average number of skill position players on those teams who have gone in the first two rounds in the NFL Draft is 2.4.

As it stands today, it doesn’t look like Notre Dame has two or more future top-two round talent at the skill positions on this roster. That could change and there are players like Mitchell Evans, Holden Staes, and Eli Raridon at tight end who could end up developing into players who are taken in the first two rounds by NFL teams. We could see that with talents like Tobias Merriweather, Lorenzo Styles, and Jayden Thomas as well one day. It’s a lot more difficult for running backs to be taken off the board in the first 60 picks of an NFL Draft, but Audric Estime and Logan Diggs look like they have NFL futures and some of the young backs have exciting talent.

Notre Dame needs to develop this group and we are going to learn a lot about where things stand with them as NFL prospects this season.

Offensive line

It’s about unit strength for the line and we’ve seen that with the Joe Moore Award somewhat being a predictor.

The only O-line for a national champion who didn’t get selected as a semi-finalist as one of the best groups in college football? That would be the 2016 Clemson O-line. They are the lone exception and out of the eight champions since they started giving out the award in 2015, five of them have had O-lines finish as finalists. Notre Dame has finished as a finalist three times and they should be a semi-finalist every at the very least every season.
This is one area where Notre Dame should always be one of the leaders.

It’s not a coincidence that the Clemson 2016 O-line remains the outlier with zero NFL Draft picks from that group of starters. Every other O-line has had at least two NFL Draft picks start for them.

Ohio State had two starters drafted. Alabama’s 2015 team had two. They had three from their 2017 team as well. Clemson’s 2018 team had two. LSU’s O-line had five (!). Alabama in 2020 had four. Georgia’s 2021 team had two and it’s about to be four after this current NFL Draft concludes. That means their 2022 team will have two and counting as well.

Every team other than Clemson (in both championship years) had at least one O-linemen taken in the second round or higher, but Alabama’s lines in 2018 and 2020 are the only groups that have had multiple first round picks starting for them.

Everyone is aware that Notre Dame has to figure out the guard spots this season, but they have a future first round pick in Joe Alt and Blake Fisher could end up being a day one selection as well either next spring or in 2025.

The Irish have to develop as a unit to be a Joe Moore Award contender. Championship level talent won’t be an issue, though.

Defensive line

It’s pretty simple.

Every single champion has had at least three future NFL Draft picks playing on their defensive line. Notre Dame had this kind of talent. They had five future picks in the 2018 defensive line rotation, three in 2019, and three in 2020. The problem is that they haven’t recruited to a level that has kept that kind of talent every year since and the defensive line isn’t a position where 3-stars routinely end up being developed into NFL Draft picks.

It really boils down to projected starters like Rylie Mills, Jordan Botelho, and Javontae Jean-Baptiste developing into draft picks. Their progress this season, and possibly next for Mills and Botelho, will be huge. Then it’s going to be up to Al Washington to continue to recruit at the level he did in the last cycle and develop some promising young talent who are already on campus.

Quarterback

There have been nine national championships and eight starting quarterbacks for these teams with two key backups playing a part in winning. Out of those 10 quarterbacks, there were five first round picks, two who were taken in the second or third round, one who will be selected this year, and then two who went undrafted.

For Ohio State, they had JT Barrett who finished second in the country in quarterback rating and Cardale Jones replacing him who became a third round pick. For Alabama’s 2015 team, they had Jake Coker who finished 31st in quarterback rating. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett finished 4th and 11th in passer rating the last two seasons. I don’t think I need to get into much detail about Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, or Deshaun Watson.

Coker is the obvious outlier in all of this as an above average college quarterback who just happened to play for an absolutely loaded team. Everybody else was a special talent or played at an elite level.

Sam Hartman isn’t projected to be a high pick, but he was 15th in passer rating last season and if he ends up playing at a top-10 level this season, that’s exactly what Notre Dame needs at the position this year and beyond with whoever ends up as QB1.

Linebacker

It’s to be determined with Georgia and their 2022 starters at linebacker who are both returning to school in 2023, but I asked Miss Cleo and she told me that those guys are going to end up playing on Sundays. Before that UGA linebacker group, each champion had at least one linebacker who was an eventual NFL Draft choice and of the eight teams from 2014-2021, six of them had a first round pick at the position. All of them had someone drafted in the first three rounds.

Defenses don’t need two or three studs starting at linebacker for them to win a championship. Georgia’s 2021 defense with three taken on day one and day two of the draft are an exception.

Someone like Te’von Coney or Clemson’s Ben Boulware can be a championship caliber player without that translating to the NFL. It’s a different deal when that player is paired with a first round talent, though.

Does Notre Dame have any potential first round talents at linebacker on the current roster or someone who is going to develop into a day two selection? If they do, it’s one of the young linebackers who they will need to make significant strides this fall.

Defensive back

I don’t think it’s mentioned enough just how critical it is for teams to have top talent at defensive back. Quarterback, receivers, and defensive line are always at the top of mind, but one look at the NFL talent for the CFP champions and it’s obvious how important it is to have Jimmys and Joes in coverage.

The only champion with less than three future NFL picks at defensive back was, you guessed it, 2016 Clemson. They had one.

It’s crazy to think that a team that had Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, and three future number one picks on the defensive line is the closest thing college football has had to a Cinderella champion in recent years.

On average, a defense needs three or four future NFL picks at defensive back to match these teams. Notre Dame’s 2018 defense had three as did the 2019 defense. They didn’t sustain it after losing Julian Love, Troy Pride, Alohi Gilman, and Kyle Hamilton. Pretty much all of that has to do with recruiting and struggles from 2017 to 2021 with safeties and corners.

Benjamin Morrison could well be on his way to becoming a high pick and Cam Hart, if he can bounce back to his 2021 form, is going to play in the league. It comes down to the development of young corners and safeties after that or having someone like Xavier Watts continuing his ascent. Notre Dame fans would have felt even better about the future if they had hung onto Peyton Bowen and Brandyn Hillman, but things are trending up at the position regardless.

As a whole, there’s so much for Notre Dame that will depend on development and continuing to improve recruiting at all positions. Brian Kelly rode what turned out to be a remarkable 2016 recruiting class into a sustained run of success. The problem is that he never built on any of the momentum that class should have given the program in terms of attracting talent and when he left for LSU, Freeman inherited a roster that didn’t have the type of strength at each position necessary to compete for a national title.

To win a championship in this era of college football, it takes talent at every position. Even one or two relative weaknesses on a roster could lead to being outmatched against the best of the best.

Notre Dame can be driven by the offensive and defensive lines, but they have to be of a certain caliber up and down the roster. There is a lot of work for the 2023 team to get there and maybe they will if everything breaks their way with some underclassmen enhancing certain positions. The most important thing will be to get the roster to a point where they are reloading when NFL talent leaves and the next group of future professionals take over.

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