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DeFazio: What an extra year of eligibility means for ND football’s future

| Thursday, November 12, 2020

With Notre Dame’s big win over Clemson on Saturday, the NCAA’s blanket waiver for fall athletes holds more weight than ever. While the reasons may not be the most apparent, they are still important to note.

I think the biggest issue for the team this year has been the inconsistency that comes with a disjointed unit. There are several members of the team who are clearly individually talented and can hold their own. You can see it with players like Kyren Williams, who is on his way to becoming a standout athlete. Even Michael Mayer has made a name for himself, and he has years to develop into even more of a force on the field. The problem is that the team has been unable to get into a rhythm. There have been inconsistencies with both the offense and the defense, and because of that, there is an abundance of untapped potential among the players. Should the team focus on working as a system, not as individual parts, their play can be that much more effective. The extra year of eligibility would help them do just that.

The Clemson game marked a turning point for the team. It was the first time this year, I think, they really started to come together. There was a fluidity to their play on both sides of the ball we had yet to see. The defense practically shut down Clemson on multiple fronts; star running back Travis Etienne having his lowest career rushing total as a starter because of the defensive line is no small feat. This could not have been done by individual players alone, but by a cohesive defensive line. On the offensive side of the ball, Ian Book was able to make the plays needed to win without a single interception, even with a fumble in the red zone. As a whole, the offense felt a lot more confident, which proved to be beneficial for the team.

We caught glimpses of the team working as a unit. We caught glimpses of the success that can come from focusing on collaborative play and consistency. Should most players stick around an extra year, it would give them time to fine-tune these skills — after already getting comfortable playing with each other this year — and be a force to be reckoned with for the 2021 season.

The big question, obviously, is whether or not the seniors or grad students even want to commit to another year. Several important players fall into these categories, but for the sake of specifics, I want to focus on three key players: graduate students Ben Skowronek, Daelin Hayes, and Ian Book.

For all three of these players, they can go one of two ways: leave on a high after a Clemson win at home, or stay to train an extra year and hopefully be draft-ready at the end of next season, if that is their goal. They will already have eyes on them after this weekend and improving while under the attention that comes with these big wins can mean good things for their football careers.

This is Skowronek’s first year with the Irish, and he has not disappointed, even with being out for a few weeks with a hamstring injury. With his breakout game against Pitt, where he caught two touchdown passes, Skowronek proved he can make the big plays Notre Dame needs to win. This is vital for the team. However, his role needs to become more consistent. If he chooses to take the extra year and continues to develop under the Notre Dame program, he can be even more of an asset for the team next season.

Hayes has also progressed this year, having another standout game against Clemson. I think people slept on him a little bit, especially with his being out because of an injury last season. Head coach Brian Kelly put it best in his press conference: “Your best players, by and large, gain a lot of credibility as well. So you’re seeing all that happen with Daelin Hayes this year.”

For Kelly to name Hayes an integral part of the team, both in leadership and athletic ability, is important to point out. Hayes’ experience and influence with the team have played an important role in the mentality the Irish have; it was this mentality that was an asset to them against big-name teams like Clemson. His role helped the team develop the unity it desperately needs. Even so, I still think he needs some more training if he wants to go pro. In using his extra year, Hayes would continue to lead the team to more Irish victories as a cohesive unit while also refining his play.

Book is arguably one of the most scrutinized players on the team, if not the most. This comes with being the starting quarterback. Personally, I don’t think he deserves all of the criticism he gets. That is not to say he has nothing to work on, but I think he is due more credit. In my opinion, you don’t have to be a No. 1 draft pick to be considered a good quarterback, and that is the case with Book. He is not afraid to run the ball, he makes the big plays and he finds ways to win. This has proven to be vital for the success of the team this year, especially against teams like Clemson. However, one could argue that he holds the ball for too long and can miss a couple of looks throughout a game. I think another year of training with the team can be beneficial for Book and can potentially raise his draft potential if that is what he wants to do. He is already working well with Williams and Mayer; especially now that things have started to click with the team, experiencing another year with a growing force can only be a positive for his football career.

In short, things are starting to look up for the Irish. Taking this team into another season together, following the momentum and progress made this weekend, can mean big things for the Notre Dame football program. And who knows — maybe a championship is in the works.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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