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

~optional musical accompaniment~

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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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