Notre Dame

Notre Dame believes mental toughness can carry it to College Football Playoff


Notre Dame believes mental toughness can carry it to College Football Playoff

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Can a mentally tough yet flawed Notre Dame team make the College Football Playoff?

That’s the overarching question as Notre Dame fades into its bye week after defeating USC, 41-31, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. Plenty has been established over the season’s first seven games about the 6-1 Irish: This is a team with explosive playmakers on offense, a quarterback who doesn’t make the same mistake twice, a disruptive defensive line and outstanding leadership.

It’s also a team that allowed USC to gouge it for 590 yards on 77 plays (7.7 yards per play). After Torii Hunter Jr. lost a fumble at the one-yard line, USC scored 21 of the game’s next 24 points and held a seven-point lead entering the fourth quarter. There have been defensive lapses, be it early against Clemson or in the second quarter against USC.

But this isn’t a cynical Notre Dame team, one that plays to not lose or finds itself thinking pessimistically even as its historic rival slices through its defense and its offense appears to be running on empty. If anything, Notre Dame’s win over USC cemented an identity for the program, one it’s lacked for the past few seasons.

“I just never sensed that our football team didn't believe that they were going to win today,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I thought those were big things for me to see from our team today. It turned some question marks into exclamation points relative to their mental toughness today.”

Mental toughness is one of those nebulous, inscrutable facets to a football team that doesn’t show up in a box score and is less important than actually having good players and good coaches.

[MORE: Notre Dame avoids disaster with fourth quarter surge past USC]

From a talent and depth perspective, there isn’t much separating Notre Dame from Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Baylor, etc. Kelly has proven to be a savant in developing gameplans for first-time starting quarterbacks, with DeShone Kizer the next in that line. The Irish defense hasn’t played at the same prolific level as its offense under Brian VanGorder, but an improved special teams unit — which featured freshman Equanimeous St. Brown blocking a punt for a touchdown against USC — and the safety nets of C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller could be enough to cover for it.

And this is a defense that, for all its issues allowing big plays against USC, or its slow start against Clemson, or its inexplicable inability to muffle Virginia’s mediocre passing attack, has come up with a number of big plays this year. KeiVarae Russell’s diving interception and deflection that tumbled into Max Redfield’s hands in the fourth quarter were Saturday’s latest examples.

Notre Dame knows it has no margin for error going forward. It can’t afford to lose again, which means beating a potentially-undefeated Temple on Halloween in Philadelphia then running the table in November, in which its only home game is against Wake Forest. An 11-1 record complete with a season-ending win over a Stanford team that’s rampaging through the Pac-12 could very well be enough to get Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff so long as chaos continues to rule (which it did in Ann Arbor and Memphis on Saturday).

“I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be tested at some point during the year,” Schmidt said. “… If you look at the rest of the top 25, people are getting in and out of one-score games, and it’s not easy to win football games.

“I don’t care who you play. In college football, anybody can win on any day, and to be able to know that we’re going to fight regardless of whatever the situation is something that you can hang your hat on, and the rest of the stuff you can fix. But if you don’t have a bunch of guys that are willing to fight and put it all out there and lay it on the line, you don’t have anything. You can’t build on anything. That’s gotta be the foundation.”

It was the foundation for Notre Dame three years ago, when a team with less depth and less talent rallied around a strong core of leaders — and a rock-solid defensive identity — to go undefeated in the regular season. It wasn’t enough in the face of Alabama’s superior talent and coaching, but it was the starting point for how Notre Dame eked out so many close wins that year.

“I think I more realized (the importance of it) the next year when we had a team that maybe wasn’t as resilient,” Prosise said. “But that 2012 team, they never gave up, and I definitely see that in this team too.”

[MORE: Corey Robinson breaks out of slump with huge catch vs. USC]

The Irish will move forward in that playoff push with a certain belief in their mental toughness that, married with the level of talent on this team, provides them with a confidence in their ability to roll out of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California with wins.

Every college team has flaws, given the rosters composed of 18-to-22-year-olds. But not every team has the mental toughness Notre Dame is convinced it has.

“If you don’t have mental toughness in an away stadium, it’s virtually impossible to win games,” Russell said. “You have to have experienced some adversity in away games, it’s the other people’s stadium, the noise — with the mental toughness we can build off this, it’s going to be amazing going into the away games that we do have when we have to exert our will in somebody else’s stadium.”

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.