Notre Dame

After Ohio State loss, Notre Dame feels it's getting close to elite status


After Ohio State loss, Notre Dame feels it's getting close to elite status

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three years ago, as Notre Dame picked up the pieces of its shattered championship bid, Louis Nix sat in front of his locker and steadfastly denied that his team was dominated by Alabama. 

It was a bit of postgame hard-headedness that came with the wounds inflicted by the best program in college football still open. No matter what Nix said, there was a clear difference between the level of skill and size possessed by Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide and Brian Kelly’s Irish. Alabama rolled big, fast and talented players across its roster; Notre Dame, despite its 12-0 regular season, did not.

Notre Dame was again challenged by a defending champion on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium, with Ohio State and its reams of future NFL players winning, 44-28. Yes, it’s another loss in a big bowl game, which Notre Dame hasn’t won in 22 years. But it also showed how far Kelly’s program has come, and was a glimpse into how far it has to go to establish itself as one of college football’s elite.

“(It’s) completely different,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said when asked to compare the Fiesta Bowl to the BCS Championship. “There was a physical difference that we had to deal with. I’m so comfortable with what we have. … At no point did I think, gosh, we can’t physically play with them. We could. We needed to execute a little better, we needed to play a little better, but yeah, I didn’t have any sense of that.”

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Notre Dame won 10 games in the 2015 regular season, a testament to the kind of depth built by Kelly over the last few seasons. When Malik Zaire went down against Virginia, DeShone Kizer stepped up and became a star — he set a Notre Dame quarterback record with his 10th rushing touchdown of the season on Friday. When Tarean Folston went down a week prior, C.J. Prosise exploded for 1,000 yards. And when Prosise was banged up in November, Josh Adams emerged as an explosive threat who broke a program record for most rushing yards by a true freshman. 

This team’s weak link was its defense, specifically a secondary that lost five players to injury (Shaun Crawford, Avery Sebastian, Drue Tranquill, KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler) and was the culprit behind far too many explosive plays. Against Ohio State, it was Brian VanGorder’s unit that again struggled; the Buckeyes racked up 496 yards and were met with little resistance throughout the afternoon. Ohio State converted 10 of 18 third down tries, putting extra strain on a defense that lost its best player (Jaylon Smith) and his backup (Te’Von Coney) to injuries.

But this one didn’t have the same feel of Eddie Lacy and C.J. Mosley pummeling Manti Te’o & Co. into the Sun Life Stadium turf. We saw flashes of competitiveness — defensive end Andrew Trumbetti and cornerback Nick Watkins held their own, for one — and this defense forced a punt and three field goals late in the game to keep Notre Dame within striking distance.

“I hope people realize that physically we can play with anybody,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “I’m confident in that. I didn’t feel like our guys were physically overmatched. I thought it was a very competitive game and we needed to execute better. That’s as simple as I can put it. We needed to win third down and get off the field.

“I think it’s a very different time for Notre Dame football. We’re an ascending football program right now.”

[MORE: Ohio State plows over undermanned Notre Dame at Fiesta Bowl]

Notre Dame will have to re-load better than it did following the 2012 season. The depth issues of that team, which never really rose to the surface, were exposed in 2013 without guys like Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and Everett Golson. Notre Dame will have to replace Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Schmidt; Smith, despite his injury, seems likely to declare for the NFL Draft while Prosise and Will Fuller are on the stay-or-go clock as well.

But there’s a feeling inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that all the pieces are in place for Notre Dame to sustain its success for 2016 and beyond. Swarbrick said he sees strengths in player development, recruiting, nutrition, conditioning and scheme.

“I don’t see any holes right now,” Swarbrick said. “We gotta do better. That’s the only way you’re going to win a national championship.”

[ALSO: Jaylon Smith suffers 'significant' knee injury]

There’s a sense, too, that the program is set up to not only sustain its success, but build on it. Notre Dame competed for a College Football Playoff spot this year and fell a pair of two-point losses to top-five teams short of making it. Whatever hurdle there is to clear, it’s not necessarily a big one. 

“We understand that we’re right there,” Kizer said. “We’re right there in every game we’re playing, as long as we execute we’re fine. But also, (we) understand that there’s always going to be great guys coming in to push us and there’s always going to be a sense of elite football every time we play.”

Even though it’s lost to every elite team it’s played recently — Florida State in 2014 and Clemson, Stanford and Ohio State in 2015 — Notre Dame needs to keep playing these kind of upper-echelon opponents. Because eventually, Kelly is confident these narrow and/or competitive losses won’t be a common occurrence.

“I like where we are,” Kelly said. “We're going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don't want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them.

“… We've made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We'll get there. Hopefully we won't have as many injuries. We'll get back here again. We'll win 'em.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.