Upon reflecting on the current state of the Notre Dame Football program as this college football season has come to an end, I couldn’t help but smile exuberantly when thinking about where this program stands on the national landscape. Over the last three seasons, the Irish have averaged 11 victories per year, which is something fans could only dream of not long ago.
Yes, ND has still come up short in national-stage-level games, evident by the close Georgia losses in 2017 and 2019 and the no-shows against Miami, Clemson, and Michigan in 2017, 2018, and 2019. But any Irish fan that believes those five games undermine the overall success of the past three years, which feature a 33-6 overall record, has no perspective of how far this program has come the past decade. Couple this recent success with the elite recruiting classes coming in 2020 and 2021, and it’s easy to see why Notre Dame, right now, is in its best position as a program since the early 1990s. While winning a National Title used to be something only delusional Irish fans could dream of, that is no longer the case.
The reason I’m so positive and believe that Notre Dame is not far away from truly contending for a national title is because, for the first time in the Brian Kelly era, the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes have five-star level talent and NFL speed at the skilled positions.
It’s been well documented that Brian Kelly has been recruiting blue-chip recruits on the offensive line and the defensive front seven in his entire time at ND, evident by the plethora of current NFL talent that used to suit up for the Irish. Offensive Linemen such as Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, and Zack Martin, who were all recently named NFL first-team All-Pros, in addition to defensive talents such as Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Jaylon Smith, were all recruited by Kelly and have proven to be forces in the NFL. However, given the limitations the Irish offenses have showcased under Kelly, it’s no surprise that there are currently no elite skilled position players (RBs and WRs) in the NFL that used to play at ND. Just stop and think about it for a second. Can you name one stud wideout or running back in the NFL that used to play for the Irish? The only name that comes to mind is Will Fuller of the Houston Texans, but any reasonable ND fan wouldn’t consider him a ‘stud.’ And besides that, there is nobody else, which proves that this has been far and away the biggest recruiting mishap of the Kelly era.
A pervasive lack of perimeter explosiveness and speed is the main aspect of this ND program that is at a clear disadvantage when comparing the roster to the college football elites. In 2018 against Clemson and 2017/2019 against Georgia, ND had the defense to win but lacked the NFL speed on the perimeter to make plays downfield and consistently move the ball. And after watching LSU, Ohio State, and Clemson in this past year’s College Football Playoff (CFP), it only reaffirmed my belief that team speed has been the predominating factor that has held this program back from having national title caliber teams these past three years.
I understand that former RBs C.J. Prosise and Dexter Williams, in addition to WRs William Fuller, Miles Boykin, and Chase Claypool were all drafted (or will be drafted) relatively high and were recruited by Kelly. But if we’re going to be candid, they’re nowhere near the talents of Amari Cooper, Michael Thomas, Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Deshaun Watson, Ezekiel Elliott, or Derrick Henry, who were all recruited by Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State (the true elites of College Football) the past decade and are currently dominating the NFL. These are the types of players Notre Dame is missing that disallows them from getting over the hump and joining the top of college football. Yes, I am aware that Notre Dame has substantially higher academic standards than these universities and therefore it is much harder to recruit elite NFL speed.
However, just because it is harder does not mean it is impossible. It also should not be this hard to recruit a quarterback that could be at the very least a backup in the NFL. This isn’t throwing shade at Ian Book, as he has been great at his career at ND and is a very good college quarterback, but he simply does not have the arm strength to make it as an NFL Quarterback. While QB play is not as big of a factor as the lack of speed that has caused ND to be just outside of the ‘elite’ category in recent years, it has limited the Irish offense.
With that being said, it appears that Brian Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff noticed the weaknesses described above a couple of years ago and put in place a conscious effort to recruit team speed and pro-style quarterbacks. And guess what: it worked. The top of the 2020 class features RB Chris Tyree (ranked 25th nationally) and WR Jordan Johnson (ranked 28th), who are the highest-ranked players at their position Kelly has ever received a commitment from. Also, the top of the 2021 class, currently ranked second nationally, features WR Deion Colzie (ranked 43rd) and QB Tyler Buchner (ranked 50th), who is the highest QB Kelly has received a commitment from. That makes for the highest recruit in the Kelly era at each of the three positions that have put a ceiling on the Irish program in recent years.
Now, I understand that not all high recruits end up making the NFL and there’s no guarantee they even dominate in college, but generally the more five-star recruits you land the more postseason success you will have. Alabama and Clemson dominating the college football landscape (before LSU joined the party Monday night) are a testament to this. Both of those programs have recruited at a much higher level than ND the past decade, and it’s why they’ve had more success..
Fans may think I’m drinking the kool-aid because it’s only two recruiting classes, but this is exactly how the dynasties of Alabama and Clemson were built. They coupled top tier recruiting classes with elite returning talent, and that formula won them prominent bowl games. Then that success brought them even more elite recruiting classes, and before you know it, both programs are regarded as a machine and have “national title or bust” expectations every single year.
Look, I’m not saying Notre Dame is on its way to being a powerhouse like Alabama and Clemson, who are expected to win the national title every year. They may never replicate that success due to their academic restrictions. But what’s stopping the Irish program from emulating Georgia or LSU? Both programs, in the grand scheme of the last five years, are nowhere near Bama and Clemson’s success. But they compete at an elite level seemingly every year, and every once in a while (Georgia in 2017 and LSU in 2019) have a team that not only competes with Saban and Dabo but can defeat them. That, Irish fans, is completely realistic given the resources Notre Dame has at its disposal. It will take stringing together more elite recruiting classes to get to that level, but make no mistake, this program is ascending and hasn’t been closer to winning a national title since the Lou Holtz days.