Rakes Report #167: They're never going to love you that one specific way that you want them all to love you

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There are a lot of ways you can approach an offseason. One perfectly reasonable avenue is to assume the best until proven wrong, an effective strategy if the sadness/anger/frustration you feel is roughly equivalent for a loss you expected versus one that caught you by surprise. Why subject yourself to doom and gloom instead of blissful ignorance if the postgame feeling is the same anyway? I also understand the appeal of being a doomsayer, a less popular position than it was a few years ago but still one present among the Irish faithful: If Notre Dame loses, you were right, and get to gloat. If they win, well, they won, so you get to feel good about that. All options in the middle work as well.

One thing I have continually advised against and will continue to counsel about going forward is the seeking of validation for your fandom from outside voices. Your favorite team is winning a bunch and your fellow Irish supporters are enjoying it but there is a desire to set all that aside and say “Okay but what about this national pundit who still has a platform because he was just kind of around a decade and a half ago? Or this random guy on a recruiting message board? Will they say Notre Dame is good?”

Who cares!* You cannot quantify respect or goodwill or whatever term you want to use and I assure you that whatever this team achieves up to and including winning a national title will result in the goal posts being moved. Some people will always hate the Irish, and that’s fine, we don’t need them. Treat any sort of national narrative regard as a bonus of the season, not the primary focus.

* Outside sentiment and general view of program matters in some limited ways — Do recruits want to come play for you? Do assistants want to come coach for you? – but that doesn’t have anything to do with a random writer’s power rankings or whether you think the Irish are getting the respect they deserve in Kirk Herbstreit’s Twitter mentions or whatever.

My plan this year has been not necessarily ignoring potential problems or losses but to concentrate focus on all the good, like the fact that we will get to attend games and tailgate and gather in bars and homes to watch college football together. What a treasure after a nightmare year-plus! The underlying idea was to steel myself against minor slip-ups that could come this autumn, particularly with the Irish replacing so much talent after two playoff appearances in three years. Despite these heady ideals, some darker thoughts about this season have crept into my mind.

Pundits could very well have a bias against the Irish, but Vegas? Vegas is pretty bloodless in this whole undertaking. Public perception of a team will move the line some but you don’t build gilded palaces in the desert by letting things like human emotion get in the way of cold hard numbers. The bookmakers have put Notre Dame’s over/under for regular season win total at nine, meaning they expect the Irish (or, at least expect bettors to expect) to win between eight and ten games. This is simply not compatible with saying “Anything below 11-1 is a failure” when discussing goals for the upcoming season.

The lower win total comes from the individual lines: The Irish are slight underdogs to Wisconsin and single-digit favorites in a half-dozen games. If you play in enough close games, odds are you’re going to lose a few of them, and right now bookies think we’re going to see a lot of close games this fall. Sure, Vegas could just be wrong and take a bath on their bearish position on Notre Dame, but we should at least take a moment to reassess some of our priors. Part of the problem is that right now oddsmakers really like Cincinnati, USC, North Carolina and Wisconsin — all with win totals set between 9 and 10 games, all teams that could have a quarterback advantage over the Irish this fall — and then you have additional opponents projected to be in bowls or close to them.

Things further deteriorated last week when Bill Connelly released his preview at ESPN and had the Irish projected with 7.5 wins due to the high number of toss-ups. Connelly’s SP+ has been down on the Irish relative to other stat systems of late, he’s likely overweighting returning production considering the insanity of last season and you’re certainly free to disagree with his findings but the amount of people who treated the preview as malevolent trolling was mildly concerning when the win total estimates are naturally conservative. If Vegas puts your over/under at nine and a system says you might win seven or eight, that’s not outside the realm of reasonability, albeit on the pessimistic side.

This roster and coaching staff absolutely have New Year’s Six upside if a few things click into place (offensive line and quarterback play is solid, a wide receiver or two take a step forward, someone locks in at safety and rush end). Additionally, our friend Jamie Uyeyama has pointed out at Irish Sports Daily that post-2016 the Irish have done a great job of returning limited production on both sides of the ball and being just fine due to the excellent development currently going on in South Bend, so we have that in our back pocket. However, if you’ve been looking at this schedule for the last few months saying “Where are the losses?”, Vegas is happy to point you toward some.

I heartily support anyone who believes the Irish are going to roll to double-digit wins again (because they could!), but I wanted to be honest about my personal feelings and potential autumn pitfalls in an effort to get yelled at less.

Transfer round-up! (These sections are going to get longer and longer in the coming years.)

On Friday, Notre Dame secured the commitment of Cain Madden, an offensive guard from Marshall. Madden was a second-team All-American last year and has the nickname Dump Truck, so we’re off to a great start. He is a little undersized versus the behemoths we’ve grown accustomed to and has done most of his mashing against Group of 5 opposition, but after Dillan Gibbons transferred to Florida State this should help stabilize the line. It is also very funny Madden chose the Irish because Seminole fans thought he was a lock to join their influx of transfers and didn’t handle the news super well. I don’t think Madden immediately alleviates all our concerns in the trenches but he’s a great piece and him choosing South Bend is another sign of the respect given to the program right now.

While the Gibbons transfer/Madden replacing him news probably has more of a tangible effect on this fall, the headline transfer that really fired up The Discourse was Jordan Johnson taking his talents to Central Florida. There is no real upside to losing a talented wide receiver prospect, but a guy not totally fitting in and then leaving isn’t anything to cause a complete reevaluation of an otherwise humming operation.  

I’m a bit late to this, but I do think it’s worth taking a look at the discussion around Brian Kelly’s approach to snap counts and the greener portions of the roster that took place after the Johnson news. It would be inaccurate to say this staff flat-out refuses to utilize young players: Just last season we saw true freshmen Michael Mayer, Chris Tyree and Clarence Lewis as key parts of the team with Rylie Mills and Jordan Botelho helping out along the defensive line. Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler might both start on the offensive line this fall, plus every other example of a true freshman being thrown into the mix and stepping up in a big way (Robert Hainsey, KeiVarae Russell, etc.).

If we narrow it down to “Brian Kelly won’t play young receivers” we get closer to the truth but we’re not all the way, because one could point to a bunch of successful sophomore campaigns.* If we move to “Brian Kelly won’t play freshman receivers” it’s more accurate but we need to dive into those receivers he is not playing.

* Some sophomore years: E Street had 58 catches for 961 yards, Chase Claypool had 29 for 402, Braden Lenzy had 454 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns (and would have been broken in half if he tried to play as a true freshman) and Will Fuller had 76 for 1094 and 15 touchdowns. Kevin Stepherson had 25 catches for 462 yards as a true freshman.

I think it would be wise for Kelly to rotate in more receivers, and there have been bad personnel decisions at times (what happens if Boykin and Claypool get more snaps against Georgia in 2017?), but part of the problem is the raw material. Plenty of great receiver prospects don’t do much their freshman years (DeVonta Smith had eight catches, although admittedly a rather important one to end the season) but if you recruit enough of them, some will (Jaylen Waddle had 45/848/7). This isn’t a Defend Brian Kelly situation because it’s his fault recruiting at the position hasn’t been better, but the problem isn’t Brian Kelly Doesn’t Play Freshman Receivers, it’s Brian Kelly Doesn’t Have Enough Freshman Receivers Good Enough To Play.

[Kevin Austin in 2018 is a great case to analyze. He got some burn as a true freshman, but should have probably received more here and there. However, in defense of the coaching staff, when your starting receivers are two NFL guys in Claypool and Boykin how often do you want them off the field when you’re pushing for the playoff? Particularly when you’ve got some other interesting targets in former top tight-end Aliza Mack, rising Cole Kmet, steady slot guy Chris Finke and sophomore Michael Young. Only so many snaps and so many targets to go around.]

Let’s take a look at some of the recent recruiting classes at receiver and see if they would check the box for a team trying to compete at the highest levels. I’m going to note Top 100ish guys in the 247 Composite, position switches and transfers.

2017: Three-stars Jafar Armstrong (moved to tailback, transferred) and Michael Young (transferred).

2018: Four-stars Kevin Austin (82nd overall), Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Micah Jones (transfer). Three-star Joe Wilkins.

2019: Three-stars Kendall Abdur-Rahman (moved to tailback, transferred) and Cam Hart (moved to corner).

2020: Four-star Jordan Johnson (36th overall, transferred) and three-stars Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle.

2021: Four-stars Deion Colzie (101st), Lorenzo Styles (114th) and Jayden Thomas.

The 2017 and 2019 classes are inexcusable. 2020 is a little thin but isn’t terrible if you pair it in a two-year period with a 2018 or 2021-type class, particularly because I know a lot of the recruiting analysts thought Watts was better than that ranking. But it seems like a waste to blame Kelly for not playing guys as freshman when those guys didn’t even stick at wide receiver when you could blame him for not recruiting the position well enough. Be upset, but in a sensible way.

If the flurry of official visits happening this month go well, there’s a good chance the wide receiver class looks a lot more like 2021 than the darker years. The Irish still have a long way to go*, but it seems like the coaching staff is cognizant of the fact that they’re too far behind at wide receiver, which has joined defensive line and quarterback as the positions you cannot lag on if you want to succeed in modern college football. If the staff starts consistently bringing in Top 100 guys and not playing any of them early, we will revisit this conversation.

* As excited as we are for Colzie and Styles in this class, the dark reality is Alabama has four receiver prospects rated above Colzie in this class while LSU and Ohio State have three each. Still, this is the sort of thing that falls into the Rest Of College Football Problem bucket versus the one dedicated to Irish-specific issues.

Sponsored content! That’s right, folks, we’ve got an advertiser. I was going to point you in their direction anyway so I am thrilled to sell out to the folks at Homefield Apparel, who launched their Notre Dame line on Saturday. Homefield is an Indianapolis-based company with a focus on extremely soft shirts and cool retro designs. The Irish gear is awesome but if you’re going to put an order in I highly recommend taking a spin through the rest of their offerings if you have friends, families or secondary teams that line up with their other schools.

We still need to do our post-2020 season All-BK-at-ND so let’s take a look at that now. Reminder the goal is to select the best single-season performances but the tiebreaker is “If you wanted to tell the story of Brian Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, which players would you need to discuss?” Here is last summer’s extensive look at the lineup going into 2020 and relative levels of safety for each spot.

I’ve spent a lot of time in various spaces discussing which excellent 2018 linebacker should start next to Manti and Jaylon and that was a lot of wasted breath and characters because Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah fulfilled the promise he showed in the Camping World Bowl as Havoc Rate personified: Butkus Award winner, the 30th unanimous All-American in program history, the stats (11.5 tackles for loss), the highlights (touchdown versus Clemson, interception versus Pitt, murder versus Florida State, etc.) and the high draft selection. It makes my life easier with this team that winning the Butkus is now a prerequisite for linebacker consideration.

Congratulations to Ian Book, whose 2019 couldn’t quite move 2015 DeShone Kizer off the spot but whose 2020 absolutely did. Statistically the case with Kizer is quite close* then you have Book’s November, when he beat Clemson with an all-time drive to close regulation before going nuts on the road against Boston College and North Carolina in two potential upset spots. Tiebreaker is legacy and impact on program and when you’re literally the winningest quarterback in program’s history and guided the team to the playoff amid a freaking pandemic, well, that pushes you over.

* Book’s rushing numbers are slightly better, and then passing he was 64.6 percent completion rate, 8 yards per attempt, 144.3 passer rating versus 63 percent, 8.6 YPA, 150 passer rating for Kizer, and only one of those gentlemen had Will Fuller. Yes, Kizer likely makes the playoff with a better defense, but there were some other differences between 2020 and 2015 beyond defensive coordinator.

What should we do at running back? It certainly seems like Kyren Williams should be on the team, right? Averaged well over 100 yards from scrimmage per game,14 total touchdowns and then you have the Clemson performance (140 yards, three scores including the game-winner, highlight worthy blitz pick-ups). Maybe we can move Theo Riddick to a new all-purpose back role and keep Josh Adams in the backfield with Williams? If you’re asking me to pick just two I’m probably going to opt to keep Riddick and maintain maximum flexibility for the reasons discussed in last year’s meditation but I think the best option is to follow the Associated Press’ lead and create the all-purpose spot. It’s kind of cheating but there’s no rulebook here.

Some considerations that didn’t merit inclusion at this time:

* The fact Kyle Hamilton was banged up most of the season and still made it very interesting with 2018 Alohi Gilman is good reason why he’s perhaps the heaviest preseason favorite in the history of this exercise to be on the list at this time next year. Fully expect Hamilton to collect trophies, All-American accolades and a high draft pick to make safety a really exclusive club along with Harrison Smith.

* Tyler Eifert keeps hanging in there despite the Irish sending tight end after tight end to the draft. Can his 2012 hold up to likely two seasons of Michael Mayer turning crossing routes into exercises in sadism against opposing defenders? Would be a nice sign for the offense if Mayer is a no-doubt selection two years in a row.

* Notre Dame had three offensive linemen taken in the first 100 picks of the NFL Draft after they powered a team to the playoff and none of them scratched the first team, which for a non-center requires a) a combination of All-American status and being a top ten pick or b) serving as a two-time captain who becomes a first-round pick and goes onto a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. All the hype around Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler has Mike McGlinchey on watch over the next few years.

This year’s crop does help solidify the second team offensive line, which is now some combination of Sam Mustipher at center, Chris Watt at guard and then you’re mixing and matching with Robert Hainsey, Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Alex Bars. We’ve been so spoiled in the trenches, it’s silly.

* A lot of really solid seasons last year (this will happen when you make the playoff) but nothing else breaking through into real consideration. Setting aside the obvious potential of Hamilton and Mayer, if you asked me to pick two players whose presence in this discussion next season would mean we had a fun fall, I’d probably say Kevin Austin and…Clarence Lewis? Or perhaps one of the defensive ends? I guess the obvious answer is Jack Coan, because if he’s better than Ian last year and Marcus Freeman does what we think he will it would be really hard to not win a bunch.

As always, I’m curious to your thoughts on this list. I get final say because it’s my newsletter but I like to have as many inputs as possible before stamping anything.

I had a fun conversation with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune on the podcast last week that I think is worth your time on an evening constitutional or as you lounge outside sipping a cold drink. (Speaking of, the Song of Summer Draft playlist is live if that’s your jam.) I kept Eric on way too long but had a blast talking to him about everything from questions about this fall’s team to recruiting to BVG.

And of course we offer congratulations to the Notre Dame baseball team, which advanced to the super regional for the first time since 2002 by annihilating Central Michigan and UConn (and therefore eliminating Michigan). They are now two wins away from heading to Omaha for the College World Series. Link Jarrett, Brinks truck, etc., etc.

I think that’s it? Let me know if this format worked for you as it was basically collecting disparate blog posts from the last few weeks and stringing them together. Not sure when next edition will be but until then take care of yourselves and each other.

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Rakes Report #166: One more road to cross, one more risk to take (The 2021 Blue-Gold Game Review)

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1) Certainly not the most exciting spring football game but I think it was a useful exercise after weeks of analysis via highlight reels, and hey it’s always nice to see the sun shining on the golden helmets and some fans in attendance. You never want to read too much either way into Blue-Gold performances but this confirmed a lot of rumblings and theories: Quarterback seems solid, front seven could be oppressive, secondary is intriguing, still plenty of work to do across the board on offense.

(If you missed the game, here are the highlights.)

2) While I understand the competition is still open per Brian Kelly, I basically saw what I needed to from Jack Coan, even if he faded a bit as the game progressed. He opened the proceedings with a strike downfield to Joe Wilkins, moved around in the pocket well, showed a little bit of escapability and already has an old-man connection with Avery Davis, which should prove useful. (I also expect it’s quite easy for quarterbacks to bond with Michael Mayer, who sat out.) The one concern might be a wobbly offensive line combined with Tommy Rees* maybe pushing Coan too far outside his comfort zone (something the former Badger seems game to explore the limits of) and no outside receiver stepping up but Coan seems capable of going into Tallahassee and winning, which is my number one concern at the moment.

* Rees being wired up during practice is a fun watch.

It’s kind of nice Coan is a capable hired gun, with no outsized expectations or history with the program. Granted, any time he misses a throw this fall there will be calls for Tyler Buchner to come in, but I imagine the staff is going to have a little more patience. Drew Pyne had a couple pretty throws and some less impressive efforts, but seems like a capable option if it comes to it. Buchner was a mix of best and most reasonable case scenario: Some gorgeous throws, some shiftiness in the run game and a couple dumb things that can be ironed out over the next 16 months before he takes the field in Columbus. Coming into this game I felt pretty good about the quarterback position and coming out of this game, particularly with the wind whipping about, that stance remains.

Blue-Gold Instant Reaction Podcast

3) You never want players to be injured but provided Kyle Hamilton, Drew White and Jarrett Patterson are all one hundred percent healthy for August their absences from most of spring practices could have been minor blessings. Sure, it would have been helpful for Marcus Freeman to get to see two key chess pieces on the field and for Patterson to gain some chemistry with his trench brethren, but the three are pretty much sure things and their absences opened up so many reps.

This is perhaps tied to the most promising news of spring, which is that Houston Griffith and Shayne Simon earned captaincies for the Blue-Gold Game due to their efforts in offseason workouts. Simon came through with a nice interception as part of a monstrous effort from the front seven. How many guys would you be comfortable out on the field at linebacker or line? It’s a high tally*, and that’s not counting potential freshmen popping. Griffith didn’t have any highlight plays, but both he and D.J. Brown earned post-scrimmage praise from Kelly. Cam Hart mostly looked the part at corner, which was nice to see after weeks of good rumblings, and we saw some positive work from K.J. Wallace, Justin Walters and Ramon Henderson. Considering this level of talent and Freeman’s track record, it’s hard not to imagine that the Irish defense will have them in every game this fall.

* Let’s try: MTA, Hinish, Ademilola Bros., Foskey, Botelho, Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Drew White, Bo Bauer, Simon, Liufau, Kiser. This doesn’t count Ehrensberger, Keanaaina or Osafao-Mensah, who had nice plays on Saturday, nor Prince Kollie, who was named the nation’s best linebacker as a high school senior.

Important to note as we discuss all angles of this game that the defense was playing nice, not throwing anything too complicated at the offense. Using that filter, I guess we should feel even better about Freeman’s side of the ball and have some more concerns about Rees’, but things probably would have looked easier with Mayer out there. Really excited to see how nasty things can get for the opposition this fall when there is a furtherance of the defensive scheme.

4) I am not going to sit here and pretend I can analyze the offensive line play from that game, but I will note that considering how closely the athletic department and NBC Sports work togther I don’t think a Blake Fisher halftime package would have been signed off on unless someone in South Bend thinks he’ll be making an early impact. Rocco Spindler didn’t get a package but he did earn plenty of discussion from the booth (and some life lessons trying to block Kurt Hinish). This is a situation where I will trust that the level of talent — and ideally, a healthy Patterson — will keep this unit above water, but we’ll find out in September. Considering the number of playoff-caliber teams that have featured true freshmen offensive linemen, Fisher or Spindler’s presence as opening weekend starters wouldn’t bother me. They’re not three-star prospects being thrown into the fire due to giant holes on the depth chart, but elite recruits who have already earned praise from some of their grizzled defensive counterparts.

5) Mixed bag at receiver. Davis looked like a capable senior slot option, and Lawrence Keys, Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins all had a couple flashes amid a bevy of targets, as did George Takacs, who will be the number two tight end after Mayer. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Mitchell Evans, a towering three-star early enrollee who did not look out of place during his first semester with the program, and hey, Lorenzo Styles, Jr. was in the mix early. That wasn’t a performance to make anyone think “Well, receiver is set, no reason to worry” but considering the rotating quarterbacks, wind and quality of defense, it didn’t cause any additional concerns.

Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree remain deadly options in both the run and pass games while C’Borius Flemister still carries the ball as if he’s getting vengeance on the opposing defense for some centuries-old ancestral betrayal. If the offensive line and/or Rees scheme can give these guys any kind of room, they’ll make the most of it, and they’ll likely do some damage even if everything around them is flailing.

After a tough close to last season, it was nice to see Jonathan Doerer make a couple easy ones. Jay Bramblett still doing his thing and most importantly we made it through a competitive football game (and spring as a whole) without any calamitous injuries.

6) Another really nice NFL Draft for the Fighting Irish*, even if it would have been great to see JOK and/or Liam Eichenberg go in the first round. Their nine total selections this year trailed only Alabama and Ohio State (10 each – Georgia also had nine). Their 21 picks over the last three drafts is sixth, behind Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Georgia and, somehow, Michigan. Want to go wider? Top 100 picks over the last decade has the Irish tied for fourth with Clemson, behind (yeah, you guessed it) Alabama, Ohio State and LSU. Same song stuck on loop: Among the best in the nation but still a tier behind the true best of the best, particularly when it comes to first rounders.

* Full accounting:

2nd round: Eichenberg to the Dolphins, Aaron Banks to the 49ers, JOK to the Browns

3rd round: Tommy Tremble to the Panthers, Robert Hainsey to the Bucs

4th round: Ian Book to the Saints

5th round: Daelin Hayes to the Ravens, Ade Ogundeji to the Falcons

7th round: Ben Skowronek to the Rams

Undrafted free agents: Shaun Crawford to the Raiders, Nick McCloud to the Bills, Brock Wright, Tommy Kraemer and Javon McKinley to the Lions.

I understand some Irish faithful still believe Kelly is a terrible coach who would be easily replaceable despite all the evidence to the contrary, but at some point wouldn’t you start to wonder with all the wins and all the guys being selected by NFL franchises that perhaps this isn’t all just an elaborate ruse and the program actually is in really good shape? Just kidding, of course not.

7) In the immediate aftermath of the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson, we recorded a podcast and discussed how it was hard to kick the sense instilled in us as Notre Dame fans that the bottom would fall out the following season. It didn’t, and in perhaps the best sign of the program’s health, an 11-win Irish campaign was mostly ignored by national media and greeted with a shrug from fans, an unfathomable reaction five, ten or 15 years prior.

Last year I really did not have much in the way of expectations due to the fragile nature of the season and all the flux surrounding it but the Irish came through with another very successful autumn. If they can do it again — despite losing so many key contributors to the NFL and coming in at 123rd out of the 127 teams in Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings — that would just be another testament to the sturdiness of the program. It’s the old adage of not rebuilding but reloading, and while the Irish might lack the raw material to compete for a title this year, they still have the firepower to not fall too far off the pace, at least in theory.

We’re still months away so this view could change but the upcoming season has an almost ethereal quality to it at this point, tough to fully wrap arms or head around. We can be certain there will be games and there will be fans and also a Wisconsin transfer is likely to be making a one-year cameo at starting quarterback which is not a thing we’ve dealt with before and unlike past or future seasons there is no clear Measuring Stick Game to point at in the offseason, just a quartet of contests against teams that could conceivably finish in the top ten and a crate of away landmines. Things could go wrong with offensive line or receiver to the point it ripples to the backfield and throws everything off, but the Irish should be favorites in most of their games.

Preseason Magazine Stalwart Phil Steele has predicted that Notre Dame will be 7th in the first AP poll, which seems silly considering roster churn. But then you note that immediately following the Irish are North Carolina, Iowa State and Cincinnati, so having Notre Dame ahead of them feels fine. And then you think about what the Irish still feature on their roster and their track record of recent years and….I guess why not?

There are absolutely ways this fall could go sideways, but for now the state of the union remains strong. As seen by draft success, development is among the best in the nation. Recruiting is good and seemingly getting better, the clearest relative weakness of the program right now and the key to taking the final step. Let us now hope for four productive months of development and an offseason news cycle that is kind to us.

Take care of yourselves and each other. Go Irish, Beat Noles.

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Rakes Report #165: What if the 2021 Notre Dame offense is really good?

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I know with how little information we have and all the roster changes it’s unwise to leap to the question above…but seriously: What if the offense ends up being really good, whether you are judging from the advanced numbers, aesthetics or points per game (please don’t judge things on points per game it’s 2021 come on)? You might say “It is genuinely irresponsible for you to write this based on highly selective clips released by the athletic department meant to show things in the best light” and while that would be correct the last newsletter had a lot of references to 3-9 and 4-8 so you’re due something a little cheerier.

Granted, this is the sort of thing that could seem really stupid come the second quarter in Tallahassee if things are bogged down in the heat and the Seminole athletes are flying all over the place, but a) It’s warm outside b) I got my first vaccine dose c) We can tailgate and go to games this fall probably?! d) The whole Hot Takes Exposed thing is dumb so have at it I guess e) Referring to c, the general theme of everything this season is Good Vibes Only.

I think the first thing we need to do is separate “The 2020 Notre Dame offense was really good for most of the season” from “The 2020 Notre Dame offense should be the model for the Irish going forward.” The former statement is absolutely true and the latter would be ill-advised as the Irish seek bigger goals. How the 2021 roster would be at running the 2020 offense is not a thing we have to concern ourselves with in this exercise. It would be madness for Tommy Rees to just roll last year’s scheme out, and he’s given no indication that’s his intent.

Notre Dame didn’t use many run-pass options (RPOs) in 2020, and I can mostly understand that, considering the abridged offseason and uncertainty on who would be available on a week-to-week basis due to the raging global pandemic. Keep it simple, lean on strengths, and guess what? It worked! Notre Dame started the season 10-0 and had a top 20 offense at the end of the season per both FEI and SP+* despite getting very little from the two guys who were expected to be the leading receivers. RPOs have been showing up on the practice clips and they seem to be a good fit for this group of quarterbacks. Additionally, it would be really easy for Rees to crank up the amount of play action as another boost since they probably didn’t do enough of that last season.

* The offense was top ten in both at the conclusion of the regular season, but coming through with a single non-garbage time touchdown in the final two games was as appealing to the numbers as it was to the fans.

Let’s walk through some of the reasons for excitement after acknowledging that the depth chart come Florida State is going to look a lot different than it does at the end of spring. Guys will heal and guys will get hurt, while the new normal of an ever-churning transfer market will mean increased volatility.

The quarterback trio competing at the moment feels nicely balanced: In Jack Coan, you have a productive veteran who’s won a lot of games (albeit not at Notre Dame) and presents a pretty high floor.* In Drew Pyne, there’s the four-star sophomore who’s impressed along the way, continues to show off a pretty ball in the highlight reels and comes with ringing endorsements from people I trust. And then you have Tyler Buchner, the freshman prodigy getting his feet wet and serving as an ever present source of hope. Ian Book’s combination of creativity and consistency over the last three years won’t be replicated exactly, and that’s okay, because this group seems capable of finding success via other methods.

* A thing I learned in this great Pod of Gold interview with Wisconsin beat writer Jesse Temple is that Coan was actually a productive runner in high school — in addition to being a talented lacrosse player — but wasn’t asked to do that in Madison. I doubt he is as much of a weapon on the ground as Book, but it’s good to know he has that capability because if you just looked at his stats as a Badger you would assume a more statuesque approach.

The biggest potential hiccup is the offensive line: Four starters are gone to the NFL, Jarrett Patterson is on the shelf for the spring and Josh Lugg might have lingering injury issues, resulting in a situation that you could kindly call fluid. This might be naïve but I wonder if much like many problems can be mitigated by throwing money at them you can get a competent offensive line by just throwing a bunch of blue-chip prospects at it. If you end up with some combination of Blake Fisher, Tosh Baker, Zeke Correll and Quinn Carroll in the mix, that’s a quartet of guys ranked in the top 120 of their class, and you have Andrew Kristofic and Michael Carmody, both comfortably Top 200 players. That’s just a lot of talent going through a prolific strength and conditioning program that’s been mentored in a system that consistently churns out NFL guys, before we even note veterans like Dillan Gibbons and John Dirksen or top freshman Rocco Spindler.

Could it be like 2018, which was a group trying to find its way after losing Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the draft and then Alex Bars at the end of September? That line was pretty crappy at run blocking (outside the top 100 in a few categories per Football Outsiders) but perfectly capable at keeping the quarterback clean and good on power success rates. If the offense is more RPO-heavy, that’s less of an onus on the trenches, which means if they’re lagging a bit the quarterback and skill players can carry more of the burden. While Dexter Williams was a home run threat and uber-productive player that season, his style was different from Kyren Williams, who approaches the line of scrimmage like a particularly burly and slippery eel. Both he and Chris Tyree should be capable of turning nothing situations into something plays and something situations into explosive plays.

Turning to the skill players, I don’t want to dismiss the work of Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, who came through not just with some big plays down the field but with excellent support in the run game, nor of Tommy Tremble, a lethal blocker, capable receiver and key part of so much of last year’s success. They were perfect fits for the 2020 offense but I think it’s possible (if not probable) the receiving threats are collectively better than last year.

  • Sophomore Michael Mayer is better than Freshman Michael Mayer probably doesn’t require additional explanation.

  • Avery Davis will have another full offseason to work at receiver after spending much of his career bouncing around positions. It does not seem like a lift to think a hard worker and smart player who has already produced on a very big stage will take another step or two.

  • I don’t think it can be overstated what a nightmare the combination of Kyren and Tyree could be for opposing defenses. You’re focusing on trying to lock down Mayer and then all of a sudden one of them comes shrieking out of the backfield on a wheel route or sliding out into the flat for a particularly deadly checkdown option. Additionally, whoever starts at quarterback will likely be better at screen passes than Book.

  • Brian Kelly was recently complimentary of both Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy, which is nice. Could Keys be the upperclassman who takes a big leap this year? Could Lenzy return to his second half of 2019 form? Sure.

  • There are some elite guys that could pop. Kevin Austin could be healthy. Jordan Johnson appears to have his head above water with campus life and is making cool plays in practice which earn shoutouts from his offensive coordinator. Lorenzo Styles, Jr. has the skillset to be an out-of-the-box threat as a true freshman.

  • Xavier Watts? Joe Wilkins? Random Transfer X?

  • Tremble and Brock Wright completed a nasty trio at tight end but George Takacs had some flashes and every whisper about Kevin Bauman has been positive. Also, as fun as it is to roll out three and four tight end sets, if the rest of the players mentioned above are doing their jobs you don’t have to deploy that formation, necessarily.

I will acknowledge the first four threats listed here are a tight end, a slot receiver and two running backs, with the biggest question marks being at the position that translates to the most upside for an offense and therefore for a team in 2021 college football. If Notre Dame plays one of the sport’s elites that has a formidable defense and high-powered offense they might have trouble, barring multiple wide receiver breakouts, but that would also mean they had an awesome season because they’re playing one of the sports’ elites in a bowl. That kind of match up would be the result of the Irish hitting double-digit wins for the fifth straight season despite losing massive amounts of production and talent from the 2020 team, which would be a great sign for the program as a whole.

If the Irish maximize their talent and win total only to run into a much-better opponent in December or January that would be a somewhat unfortunate time loop situation, yes, but it would also mean they again provided us with a very pleasant experience over the course of three autumn months. That can’t be the ceiling for the program, but a ceiling for a season with this much roster turnover? Sure, particularly since we might actually get to go to games and gather in bars and all that fun stuff.

Couple other things that might help:

  • At least on paper, Notre Dame isn’t set to face many elite defenses. Cincinnati and Wisconsin were top five units last year and will be formidable, but outside of that, there might not be another Top 25 defense on the schedule, although USC and the Virginia schools absolutely have that potential. Random things happen and you could see someone surprise in this area, of course.

  • There’s no reason to think the Irish defense won’t be capable, meaning that the offense should find itself in advantageous positions where it doesn’t have to press. We could be looking at shootouts with the Trojans or Tar Heels or even the Boilermakers, but the majority of opposing offenses should have some issues consistently moving the ball as long as Marcus Freeman achieves all of our hopes and dreams.

In sum, that is the rosy view of the proceedings based, again, solely on selective clips released by the university and the players themselves. We are taking the kindest possible view of what is essentially propaganda, but so what? Reality will come this fall either way, so while we should certainly track how things are coming at offensive line, who is being consistent at wide receiver and the quarterback derby, it certainly seems like the vibes are good, and for that I am thankful. 

By sending this today instead of waiting until Monday, I’m probably guaranteeing something interesting comes out of Saturday’s practice. Here’s hoping it’s positive (Kelly heaping praise on some unexpected players) and not negative (an injury). 

There have been a few podcasts since the last newsletter (Libsyn) (Spotify) (Apple) you can check out:

  • A review of the new Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.

  • A conversation about Mike Brey returning to coach the 2021-2022 season.

  • A look at offseason myths surrounding the program as well as putting together a list of the best head coaches in college football.

I’m really happy with how all of the above turned out so give them a shot. Leaving ratings and reviews at Apple is apparently helpful so if you’ve been enjoying the pod and are bored, maybe mosey on over there.

That’s it for now - unsure of when the next one will be but until then please take care of yourselves and each other.

If you were forwarded this email and would like to sign up to receive future editions, you can do so here.

Rakes Report #164: First you lose trust, then you get worried

~optional musical accompaniment~

Hey all, this is just a generic offseason catch-up-type deal but I wanted to begin by briefly touching on the loss of Louis Nix III. There have been so many good tributes and I have no special insight but I want to reiterate the larger points: Nix committed to Notre Dame when the program didn’t have a coach and then became its heart and soul. He was in many ways the ideal player to root for, a ferocious competitor on the field and an ebullient presence off of it. His Chocolate News videos were an absolute joy and if someone in the athletic department could please repost them that would be great.

The Nix news hit really hard, losing such a special individual just as the calendar was about to turn to March again, with half a million dead and so much misery beyond that. My thoughts go out to Nix’s family and his friends and to his former teammates, who’ve now lost a half dozen of their brothers at far too young of ages. There is no silver lining to this, no upside, but it should serve as another reminder to please be over-the-top annoying in reminding the people you love and care for about how you feel.

And now let’s talk about college football, I guess.

While we know a few things about this team we still got so very much to learn, including whether or not media will even have access to spring practices or how many of those practices actually happen. Despite that uncertainty, I think we can safely start making some broad guesstimates at possibilities. Notre Dame is coming off a tremendous stretch where they made the playoffs twice in three years but this fall is primed to be a sort of reset, with so many key players moving on with their careers. There is a fine line between “Oh, it’s fun new faces are stepping up as I watch my team win in different ways” and “Wait, how do the Irish have four losses before November?”, so I thought perhaps we could contrast the current situation to the warning signs before 2007 and 2016 to see if there are any glaring red flags. I assure you this is not as depressing as it sounds.

The SP+ has found a correlation between returning production in four areas (quarterback, receiver, defensive back and offensive line) and a higher efficiency the following season. If you’re starting to do the math in your head and thinking “That seem bad for Notre Dame?” yes, you are correct. The Irish come in at 49 percent returning production, good for 123rd out of 127 teams. I am not saying these numbers are gospel but if you add ten percent to the Notre Dame total just out of SP+ skepticism, that only gets the Irish into a tie for 100th.

Let’s look at quarterback and receiver together: Gone is Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in school history and a true dual threat who did a lot of damage improvising outside of the called play, scrambling for first downs and buying time for his receivers to get open (remember that one Boston College touchdown?). In his place is...Jack Coan?

The Wisconsin graduate transfer is the likely starter come Tallahassee barring injury or something weird happening, and honestly that seems pretty okay. Coan is not the running threat of Book, to put it politely (he has negative-11 rushing yards in his career) but if he were to replicate his 2019 line (70 percent completion rate and 8 yards per attempt) that would probably mean a solid amount of Notre Dame victories, as it did for 10-win Wisconsin that year. I would be concerned about going from the ultra-mobile Book to the more stationary Coan but I suspect the Irish offensive coordinator has some idea of how to maximize a quarterback who’s accurate but not the fleetest of foot.

The rosiest Coan performance came in the regular season finale, when he played at No. 8 Minnesota, in a blizzard, for the division title. Coan was 15 for 22 for 280 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and threw in three rushes for 20 yards for kicks in a 38-17 win. If you want to be down on Coan, he finished all the way down at 74th in passing efficiency in 2019, directly behind — I kid you not — Tommy DeVito, Adrian Martinez, Bo Nix and James Blackman, a true rogues’ gallery. In Coan’s defense, his numbers were much better until two poor outings against the meat grinders of Ohio State (2nd in DFEI) and Oregon (6th) to close the season.

Behind Coan you have Brendon Clark (a junior dealing with injuries who may or may not be good to go come fall), sophomore Drew Pyne (undersized, but a composite four-star who acquitted himself well at Elite Eleven) and early enrollee freshman Tyler Buchner (the chosen one, who has played one season of football in the last three due to injury sophomore year and pandemic senior year). If Coan were to falter or get injured, it could get interesting in a bad way, but one consistent thing under Kelly has been first-time starters doing quite well.  Tommy was 4-0, Everett was 10-1, Kizer was 8-3, Wimbush was 9-3 and Book was 8-1 – different types of quarterbacks, all, but quite good.

(The dream scenario is obviously Coan playing at his 2019 level or above and Buchner being such a preternaturally gifted wunderkind he still beats him out by the second half of the season. Fingers crossed.)

I don’t think it really mattered who played quarterback for Notre Dame in 2007 considering the situation on the offensive line, but going from two-time Heisman finalist and first-round pick Brady Quinn to the three-headed monster of Jimevantrius Sharpjonesen was a bit of a downgrade. 2016 saw two talented quarterbacks compete for the starting spot, but the rotation was bungled and performance dipped, partially due to…

…all the receivers leaving. In 2015, seven different players* had double-digit catch totals and only one played the following season (Torii Hunter, Jr., who was nearly assassinated in the opener and missed the end of the season with a knee injury). That is a great deal of churn. This also happened with the 3-9 campaign, after Jeff Samardzija (78), Rhema McKnight (67) and Darius Walker (56) led the 2006 Irish in receptions before moving on from the program.

* Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Alize Mack.

Notre Dame is losing three prominent receivers in Javon McKinley (led the team in both receptions and yardage), Ben Skowronek (tops in receiving touchdowns) and Tommy Tremble (a key cog in the offense), but they bring back enough weapons that things should be okay? Michael Mayer tied for the team lead in receptions and could easily be the focal point of the offense, while Avery Davis had some big plays out of the slot. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree are threats out of the backfield, while George Takacs and Kevin Bauman should be fine as complementary tight ends.

Now, how about wide receiver? There are no clear answers, but there are options within the realm of possibility to fill out the rotation. Could Kevin Austin and/or Braden Lenzy be healthy and productive all year? Sure. Could Joe Wilkins and/or Lawrence Keys turn into 40-reception players?* Yeah. Could sophomores Jordan Johnson and/or Xavier Watts pop, or true freshman Lorenzo Styles, Jr. immediately earn touches? Yes. There’s also the opportunity for another grad transfer to come save the day after spring. Tommy Rees doesn’t need all of those guys to hit, he just needs a few, which doesn’t seem like it’s asking for too much considering player development of recent years.

* 40 receptions seems like a big leap, but if you phrase it as “Stay healthy all season and accrue just over three catches per game” it scans as more reasonable?

Secondary brings back perhaps the best player on the team in Kyle Hamilton but loses the second and third most productive defensive backfield contributors in Nick McCloud and Shaun Crawford. Sophomore Clarence Lewis, who was sixth on the team in tackles and second in passes defensed, returns and is hopefully poised for a nice, steady development. After that, the new additions to the staff (defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and safeties coach Chris O’Leary) have to work with Mike Mickens and find another few guys for the rotation. TaRiq Bracy and Houston Griffith have shown flashes, but can they do it consistently for three months? Can some of the young guns step up quickly, like Lewis did? Is there another McCloud out there waiting to transfer in? There are myriad options, it’s just the matter of getting a couple to hit.

In a way, the secondary and receiving corps are quite similar: Neither was a particular strength in 2020 and the shiniest stars are back in both groups. Would it be shocking if one or both of these units were better in 2021 than they were in 2020?  I don’t think so, and the receiving corps almost has to be if the rushing attack takes a step back without Book and with heavy turnover on the…

…offensive line, which is losing four multi-year starters. Not good! However, Jarrett Patterson returns, and due to injuries over the past couple seasons we can feel pretty good about the capabilities of Josh Lugg and Zeke Correll, which should give us both tackle spots and a center. Can Jeff Quinn find a couple of guards in his stockpile of talent? He’s not lacking for options, ranging from Dillan Gibbons and John Dirksen (the three-star veterans) down to star freshman Rocco Spindler and a ton of blue chips in between. Is this another potential transfer spot? For sure, but considering all the anchors walking out the door this situation could be a lot worse, provided the Patterson/Correll/Lugg alignment can stay healthy to anchor things.

(2016 might provide a hint of warning to counter the relative optimism above: Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer departed the elite 2015 line, and an expected smooth transition for Mike McGlinchey from right tackle to left tackle was not so easy, the only blip on his otherwise stellar collegiate and professional career. Could Patterson falter in the same way changing spots? Perhaps. No lessons can be gleaned from 2007 in this department, as few programs in history have combined the negligent recruiting of Willingham with the shoddy development of Weis. If you transported 2021’s reserve offensive line to 2007 that team would have almost certainly been in better shape.)

At running back, the Irish are good to go with the trio of Williams, Tyree and C’Borius Flemister, an embarrassment of riches before you throw in two promising freshmen. The front seven is obviously going to hurt from losing the best linebacker in the country and two stalwart defensive ends but the line is really deep and there are enough options at linebacker that even if it’s not as elite as it’s been in past years, I find it difficult to believe opposing offenses will just be able to line up and run them off the field. This was an issue in 2007, when the Irish had an excellent pass defense if you went by yardage allowed because no one had to throw the ball against them.

If Freeman is as good as advertised, he’ll be able to keep this at a Clark Lea-like level, which should be enough against the majority of opposing offenses. A thing you must remember about 2016 is that a) The defense was coached by Brian VanGorder b) It lost multiple impact players at every level, from Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara to Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt to KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, and that was before a five-star senior safety got kicked out of school following an August arrest. The Irish lost some critical players, but it’s not quite to the level of the transition into 2016 and again I cannot stress enough how Brian VanGorder is no longer on the staff.

Quick intermission to promote a few podcasts that dropped in the first two months of the new year. The following episodes are on Apple and Spotify and wherever you find your podcasts:

  • A speed-run through the 43 wins that have occurred over the last four seasons of Notre Dame football.

  • A recruiting primer from Carter Karels (formerly of the South Bend Tribune, before Gannett foolishly laid him off this week - absolutely enraging) and Jamie Uyeyama (Irish Sports Daily), two guys who know that aspect of the game as well as anyone.

  • A general offseason update/state of the program from The Athletic’s Pete Sampson.

Okay, back to it.

Another factor we need to consider is schedule. What makes 2016 extra embarrassing is Notre Dame didn’t even face that difficult of a slate, losing to 3-9 Sparty, 4-8 Duke and 5-7 Texas (who fired their coach). NC State and Navy were decent, Stanford and Virginia Tech both won ten games and USC was surging toward a Rose Bowl crown, but this wasn’t a murderer’s row.

2007? That was a really bad team playing some teams who were quite good compared to their usual finishes. USC was Peak Carroll nasty, finishing No. 3 in the country. Boston College got as high as No. 2 behind Matt Ryan before finishing 10-3. Michigan and Penn State each won nine games, Purdue won eight (!) and Sparty won seven. Heck, even Air Force and Navy combined for 17 wins.

I am concerned that Notre Dame fans have perhaps been spoiled by these past three seasons of going undefeated against unranked teams, underdogs, and visitors to Notre Dame Stadium. Looking at the opponents on the schedule, it wouldn’t surprise me if none of them finished in the top ten, but there are plenty of candidates for ranked finishes: Wisconsin, Cincinnati, USC and North Carolina seem more than capable of putting together Top 25 campaigns, and then you’ve got road trips to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Stanford, none terrifying on their own but collectively could provide a trip-up or two. On top of that, potentially frisky Purdue, Navy and Georgia Tech teams all come to South Bend.

This is the type of schedule an elite team would capably steamroll, with no one outside of the Trojans really having the talent to keep apace. But is the 2021 Notre Dame team going to be elite? Considering all the losses we addressed above, that seems ambitious, meaning you could see more close games than usual*, and if you’re playing in close games, you’re only a bad break or two from losing close games. There’s no rule that says Notre Dame has to regress to the mean in the games they’ve cleared these last few years, but there’s also no rule that says the train will just keep rolling. “Notre Dame fans didn’t appreciate winning all the games they were supposed to over the last few years so the College Football Gods smote them with a cluster of upsets in 2021” is by no means outside the realm of possibility.

* Over the last two seasons, Ian Book guided the Irish to 21 wins. Just four of those (USC and Virginia Tech in 2019, Louisville and Clemson in 2020) were by single digits. We’ve been really spoiled.

Kelly can play a big role in this as well. Part of Notre Dame’s success the last four years has been driven by making good, aggressive decisions, at least according to this chart, which passes the smell test since it has Alabama as exceptionally ruthless and Stanford as literally the most cowardly Power 5 team in the country. When things were on tilt in 2016, Kelly didn’t seem to understand the type of team he had (one with a Brian VanGorder defense) and kept doing questionable game management stuff. A few examples, in both chronological and rising-level-of-frustration order:

  • After giving up 37 points in regulation, Notre Dame’s defense allows Texas to score in four plays to open overtime. The Irish offense immediately responded in a single play, but they kicked the PAT instead of going for two. Texas won in the next frame.

  • Down 36-28 to Michigan State, Notre Dame faced a 4th and 7 and their own 32 with 3:30 remaining in the game. They punted the ball away, and Sparty ran out the clock.

  • Down four points to Navy, Notre Dame faced a 4th and 4 at the Midshipmen 14 with 7:28 remaining in the game. Despite being unable to slow the option all afternoon, Notre Dame kicks the field goal. Navy ran out the clock, winning by one.

You cannot strip luck from the extremely dumb game of college football, but you can be aggressive in ways that maximize your abilities to win. After a few smooth seasons (for which he deserves credit!), Kelly might have to do a lot more capital-I, capital-C In-game Coaching this time around because the margins are going to be thinner, and there will be no Book heroics to clean things up in crunch-time.

The actual result from this season will fall in the middle, but I think your extremities look something like:

a) Jack Coan is capable of winning you double-digit games with a good running game and defense and Notre Dame provides him that and then some, with Rees’ offense more dynamic in Year Two and Freeman getting elite results similar to his success in Cincinnati in Year One. Kyle Hamilton, Michael Mayer and Kyren Williams are all considered among the best at their positions. With the exception of Cincinnati, the Irish don’t play a team that finishes with fewer than three losses. As a bonus, Tyler Buchner earns nothing but rave reviews and the young receivers shine, raising the hype level for 2022 and beyond.

b) Rees’ offense struggles without Book to bail it out while Freeman is unable to stitch together enough of a secondary or pass rush in his first season running a defense without Luke Fickell consulting. Offensive line never gels, there’s a quarterback controversy after Coan struggles in an opening upset to the Noles, the place-kicking game is a mess and Kelly goes on tilt with his game management. North Carolina, Wisconsin and USC are all division winners, Cincinnati is again the best of the G5, and Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Purdue, Stanford and Navy are all bowl teams. Also, general rotten injury luck and bad bounces. The most annoying people on the planet breeze past noting how much they should have appreciated Book to call for Kelly’s termination.

I would not focus too much on Option B, as it is not too late to fix anything before everything has gone wrong and this coaching staff has months to get things in order. If/when spring practice starts, we’ll start to get a better idea of what this team will look like, but for anyone bored with the exceptional competence of the last few years, you may be in for a chaotic autumn of Irish football. But to be clear, chaos doesn’t have to break against us and perhaps the train does indeed just keep rolling, albeit along a slightly different track. Excited to find out, ideally with fans safely in the stands and tailgating.


A couple final notes before we go. First: If you have any requests or suggestions for offseason content, via either newsletter or podcast, reply to this email and let me know. Also am happy to field questions mailbag style so if you’ve got one hit me up, maybe it can be the basis of a future edition.

Second: After adding in shirt money Christmas Giving 2020 crossed the $12,000 mark, easily a new one-year record. Thanks so so so much to everyone who donated and/or shared the link, there is really no way to properly express the extent of my gratitude. The GoFundMe is still live if you were thinking about donating but didn’t.

I think that’s it? I hope you’re all taking care of yourself and each other. Be well and Go Irish.

Rakes Report #163: Because it isn't as though we get what we want, no matter how hard or long we have fought (The Alabama Review)

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~optional musical accompaniment~

1) Notre Dame lost to the Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl for a number of reasons but three factors stand out:

a) The Irish did not recruit defensive back or wide receiver well enough a few years ago and that came back to cost them in a major way against a team with perhaps the best outside talent in the sport. Kyle Hamilton is a check-plus, but next to him was a grad transfer, a true freshman and a sixth-year corner-to-safety conversion. The starting wide receivers were a grad student, a converted quarterback and a Northwestern transfer. There were injuries and transfers out, sure, and these players should be praised for the work they put in and staff lauded for getting to 10-0 but when you see the perfection of DeVonta Smith or the suffocating ability of Patrick Surtain the gap feels extra wide.

On the Cover 3 podcast*, 247 recruiting director Barton Simmons** has been professing the belief for months that wide receiver is the new defensive line in terms of the position group you must be elite at in order to win at the highest levels. After watching both semifinals, that’s a pretty compelling theory. Thankfully, Notre Dame has accrued some good receiver talent in the last couple classes. Unfortunately, it pales in comparison to what Alabama and Ohio State are adding to their treasure trove, which is just another example of the current situation for the elite of the elites and everyone else. (I will note the Irish were not blown to pieces in the trenches, which was nice.)

* Speaking of, I thought their discussion of the Irish loss — available here beginning at the 25-minute mark — was fair and more clear-eyed than what you’ll see among some closer to the program. They also don’t spend a lot of time on the post-game press conference.

** Late Sunday, it was reported that Clark Lea was hiring Simmons (a Nashville native and high school teammate of Lea’s) for an operations role at Vanderbilt.

b) Notre Dame was in an unenviable offensive position on Friday as they needed to try to score enough points to beat a team that was on a two-year streak of putting up 35+ but also run enough clock that they didn’t leave their defense exposed to three top-five Heisman finishers all afternoon. It’s possible no game plan exists that would allow this Notre Dame roster to beat this Alabama roster yet I am going to nitpick anyway. Tommy Rees did a really good job all season with the players available but one unseemly trend was an overreliance on second and long runs, generally considered the worst play in football. In a game where the Irish were 20-point dogs and had to take some chances, they were far too conservative, and seemed to come out tight, which I do not understand in a game no one thought you were going to win.

Down 7-0 near midfield, the Irish went Kyren Williams run, Kyren Williams run, Ian Book designed QB run on 3rd and 7 then punt. Very bad! You are a giant underdog, and Alabama went 97 yards in five plays so your punt achieved nothing. (Nice day by Jay Bramblett, though, against the hometown squad.) At 21-7 near midfield, they completed a one-yard pass to Williams, then had him run on second and nine before a third and nine incompletion. I would have preferred to give Book a few more chances to cook early – some bootlegs, some play-action, some more back-shoulder throws, more plays like the screen to Chris Tyree — but I understand Alabama has a pair of nasty corners and blue chippers all over the place and eating clock had to be a priority.  I just would have preferred a few more chances, but it also should be noted Tommy Tremble was a key part of the Notre Dame offense all year and to lose him early was real bad.

c) Nick Saban has a case as the best coach in the history of the sport and deserves a ton of credit for what he has built. After being tripped up by the spread a few times and complaining about how up-tempo offenses were dangerous he switched it up, said, “Well, if these teams can score so many points with mortal talent, what would it look like with my roster” and then brought in Lane and Sark to modernize his offense. Now they recruit receivers at a silly rate and are set to continue their dominance.

Brian Kelly isn’t as good as Saban, but that would be the case with basically any coach the Irish could hire short of Bill Belichick, and even then I’m wondering how he would handle recruiting trips. The Irish are the fifth different program to lose to Alabama by double digits in the semifinals – this is just sort of what happens. As we mourn our fate, it’s fun to remember that the only reason Saban landed in Tuscaloosa is because Rich Rodriguez got cold feet and the Dolphins chose Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees. History bends at odd junctures.

2) I am not really sure how to evaluate the defense, at least without seeing what Alabama does in a week. They gave up touchdown drives on the first three possessions and made it look pretty easy for Mac Jones and company but they also buckled down at the end of the first half and beginning of the second to keep it a little bit interesting. We’re in a position where Najee Harris jumped over another human being without breaking stride and he is the third best offensive player on the Tide, per Heisman voters. Like, DeVonta Smith levitated at one point? And his last touchdown catch was technical perfection. These guys have been crushing everyone all season, including really talented Georgia and A&M defenses, and if they do it again against the Buckeyes you just tip your hat as you had to with last year’s LSU team.

3) If you would have offered me before the game the option that Notre Dame would have been down 14 in the third quarter but putting on a solid drive I would have almost certainly taken that deal, but unfortunately Book made a very poor decision on a 2nd and seven with room in front of him. If the Irish go down and score there, Alabama probably just busts out some disgusting double move to Smith out of the slot to immediately restore order but it would have been nice to make them sweat just a little bit. That game was never in doubt but for a second I thought there might have been a hint of second-half drama. Alas.

4) Notre Dame’s offensive strengths are always going to be at line and tight end so it doesn’t make sense for the Irish to swerve too far away from that, but Rees must spend this offseason finding ways to increase the creativity and dynamism on the outside so the Irish can crank up the vertical passing threat in these big games. I cannot state this any more clearly: As college football is currently played, you cannot win a playoff game, let alone two, without being able to throw the deep ball. Running the ball is helpful and good defenses are nice but if Notre Dame wants to reach the peak they must must must expand that part of the scheme. Big winter, spring and summer for Rees, who will have no shortage of toys to play with in the fall but he’s going to have to find a quarterback (or quarterbacks) and replace some stalwarts on the line.

5) Just wanted to shout out some guys. Book got absolutely wrecked on a sack and considering the score could have easily just called it a day, but came back in and put on a few more drives. He falls to 30-5 as a starter, the losses coming in two playoff games, an ACC Championship and on the road in Ann Arbor in Athens – you want to win some games, he’s a very good choice. Kyren Williams and Michael Mayer were beasts, again, George Takacs played well in relief of Tremble and Ben Skowronek made some plays. Kyle Hamilton flashed as he is wont to do while Jayson Ademilola was a real force in the middle.

(I can’t remember if I wrote about this after bowl season last year but I remember thinking “It really sucks to lose your championship game then your bowl” because there were a lot of examples of fun seasons ending in downers last year and hey look at us now. Utah went from 11-1 and on the verge of the playoff to 11-3 after losses to Oregon and Texas. Baylor, same deal, after losing to Oklahoma and Georgia. Wisconsin had a big win over Minnesota to get to 10-2 but finished 10-4 after Ohio State and Oregon, while Virginia’s feel-good 9-3 turned into 9-5 after Clemson and Florida. Under Kelly, Notre has split the West Coast finale/bowl game nearly every year, with only 2010 and 2019 providing consecutive wins and only 2011 and 2015 closing with consecutive losses. I don’t have a broader point here and should have provided a disclaimer at the start of this nonsensical parenthetical but here we are.)

6) There are a few ways the immediate future of Fighting Irish football can go, including but not limited to these following options:

More of the same, with upside: Notre Dame continues on the same track, recruiting at a top ten-ish level, winning ten-ish games a season, sending guys to the NFL at a steady clip and generally acquitting themselves well but failing to crack the final level of the sport. Where does the upside come from? The coaching staff can take another step forward and you could also maybe see star-level QB play along with an experienced roster upcycling at the same time (think 2019 LSU, but like, 80 percent of that) combined with one of the powers dealing with injuries or bad breaks and steal one. The frustrating thing about being this close is that you keep losing when you’re this close but the nice thing is you’re consistently this close and that means fortune has more opportunities in which to smile upon you.

Cranking up recruiting, closing gap further: This doesn’t seem like a strong likelihood under this staff but it could happen, I guess? We kind of know what we’re getting with Kelly recruiting after a decade at this so I’ll just assume that continues until it changes. Do you know how cool it was to add Kyle Hamilton to the roster last year and Michael Mayer this year? Imagine adding four or five of them every year. Seems fun, I would like to try it, but I also understand why many top prospects have no interest in playing school and Indiana winters.

A backslide: Unfortunately, this one does seem plausible. Next season the Irish will be replacing Book, Lea and a number of senior linemen, meaning that it could be a rebuilding-ish season depending on how some of the teams of the schedule swing. In 2022 and 2023, absolutely stacked Ohio State and Clemson are both on the slate, two rather large boulders to move. Kelly has a good thing going and it’s possible everything continues to click at the same double-digit-win-season rate, but it’s also possible we’re averaging three-plus losses a year for a while.

A coaching change: I don’t know how likely this is, but it’s possible, if Kelly gets a godfather offer from elsewhere, decides he wants to retire or one of the beat writer reply guys on Twitter gets their hands on the wishing stone from the new Wonder Woman. We won’t be able to fully evaluate Kelly’s tenure until he’s gone, as we know he’s better than the trio of predecessors but the question is whether this is as good as it gets for Notre Dame football in the 21st century or if this is just as good as it gets for Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly. Hiring head coaches is an absolute crapshoot with limited Urban Meyer exceptions and anyone who tells you otherwise after Jim Harbaugh and Tom Herman and Scott Frost and Justin Fuente and Mike MacIntyre and Kevin Sumlin and Randy Edsall and all the way down the line is not paying attention. Maybe Matt Campbell or P.J. Fleck or Exciting Candidate X will be better or maybe they won’t. At some point in the coming years we’ll find out, for better or worse.

7) I feel like this is basically the third time we’ve wrapped up the season, but just want to reiterate any time you make the playoff that’s a successful campaign considering all of four teams do that. If you beat the No. 1 team in the country along the way and do so during a pandemic with virus protocols and after an offseason of social justice protests in which player after player stepped up in impressive fashion, well, that only makes it more successful. This is an extraordinary group of individuals and it was a real pleasure to watch them compete for a dozen games.

8) To close: It would be one thing if Notre Dame wasn’t earning their way into these big games, but they absolutely are on account of they’re better than a vast majority of programs who don’t beat them, thus allowing them to advance to these situations. The bigger problem is when they get to these games they are almost immediately thrown into a pit of chainsaws, which is not ideal. But what is the alternative to simply continuing to work your way into these positions, tweaking the system and trying to upgrade recruiting? I know sometimes we have the discussion of “Lose in the playoff or win a New Year’s Six game” but if that happens you just lost a regular season game or two you wouldn’t have normally. Would you have preferred the Irish lose to Oklahoma or Pitt in 2012, or Michigan or Pitt in 2018, or Louisville or Clemson this year rather than meet their grisly fates? Maybe that would have been better, but it would have felt miserable at the time and we always would have questioned whether that was a team that could have pulled it off if it didn’t get tripped up (think 2015). Plus, you can’t guarantee a New Year’s Six win (unless you can, at which point hit me up and let’s talk).

There’s nothing that says the result will change the next time the Irish make it back to this stage or the time after that or the time after that — if they even make it back! We’ve been rather spoiled of late — but I have developed a fondness for the cocktail of grease and blood that’s pooled at the bottom because of what it represents. It’s important to keep making these games for two key reasons: You can’t win a title if you don’t play on this stage and by virtue of making these games it means you put together a great three months of football, and there’s so much value and joy in that.

I hate to have to tap the Al Swearengen sign again but I’m going to do it:

So including last night, that’s three fucking damage incidents that didn’t kill you. Pain or damage don’t end the world, or despair, or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man — and give some back.

Maybe it never happens with Kelly, but the next guy is a recruiting ace who puts Notre Dame over the top. Or maybe it happens with Kelly and this whole journey is part of a glorious story. Or maybe the next guy is worse, and the next-next guy is worse than him and it never happens at all. I can’t make you any promises other than that I share in all your frustrations, but I’m going to keep watching just in case. These last four years — double-digit victories each fall, two playoff berths, two bowl wins, a lone home loss — have been a great deal of fun and it would have been a real shame to miss out on them.

Our current position comes back to the tricky matter of attempting to balance complacency and contentment. Giving up on the strive to the very top would be disappointing, potentially denying us a chance to some day celebrate the ultimate prize, but to ignore all that we have to instead focus on all that we lack is also a problem. Figuring out the correct mix of the two is an ever-evolving project, but I think we’re doing our best.

Let’s wrap this up: Happy New Year. Please stay safe. And Go Irish, Beat Seminoles, and may we all be able to tailgate together this fall.

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