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.