Upon reflecting on the current state of the Notre Dame Football program as this 2020 college football season continues to hang on by a thread, I couldn’t help but smile exuberantly when thinking about where this program stands on the national landscape compared to where it was not long ago. Over the last three seasons, the Irish have won 33 games and recorded at least 10 victories in each of those three seasons. That surpasses the total amount of 10-win seasons in the entire 13-year span after the Lou Holtz era and before Brian Kelly came aboard. Notre Dame has turned itself from a national afterthought in the early 2000’s to a perennial top 10 team. To put it simply, Notre Dame is at its best position as a program since the early 90’s.
Not Defeating the Elites Doesn’t Undermine Total Success
Yes, Notre Dame 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, respectively. 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 in 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 is not only set up to succeed in 2020, but also for the foreseeable future. While winning a National Title used to be something only delusional Irish fans could dream of, that is no longer the case. This program is ascending, and if the ’20 and ’21 recruiting classes are any indication, the Irish will be even more talented in future years than they are right now.
A Lack of Team Speed Has Held this Program Back
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 ’20 and ’21 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 named NFL first-team All-Pros last season, 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 in the NFL that used to play at ND. Just stop and think about it for a second. Can you name one stud wideout, runningback, or quarterback in the NFL that used to play for the Irish? The only names that come to mind are Will Fuller, Miles Boykin, and potentially Chase Claypool. And any reasonable ND fan wouldn’t consider any of these guys NFL ‘studs.’ Compare that list to the list of linemen in the prior paragraph and there is a notable gap in NFL talent, which proves that this has been far and away the biggest recruiting deficiency 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 last year’s College Football Playoff, 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.
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 in 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 hindered this program in recent years, it has limited the Irish offense.
Elite Skilled Position Talent is Forthcoming
Even though all of the above is true, it appears that Brian Kelly noticed these weaknesses a few 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 70th nationally), who is the nation’s fastest high school runningback, and WR Jordan Johnson (36th). Both Tyree and Johnson are the highest-ranked players at their position Kelly has ever received a commitment from. Also, the top of the 2021 class features QB Tyler Buchner (41st), the highest QB Kelly has received a commitment from, and WR Lorenzo Styles (106th). That makes for the highest recruit in the Kelly era at each of the three positions that have limited recent Irish offenses.
Additionally, it’s not like Kelly and the staff are ignoring the offensive line and defensive front seven, which have been staples of past ND teams. The 2021 class features two top 50 offensive linemen in Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler, in addition to top 100 defensive lineman Gabriel Rubio. Instead of solely succeeding on recruiting in the trenches, the Irish are landing commitments from blue-chip skilled position players and will have a much more balanced roster for future seasons in terms of talent.
A National Title is Finally a Legitimate Hope
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 are dominating the college football landscape.
Look, I’m not saying Notre Dame is on its way to being a powerhouse like Alabama and Clemson, who have annual national title expectations. They may never replicate that success due to their academic restrictions. But what’s stopping this 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 a few 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.