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Development, not recruiting, possible culprit for Notre Dame’s struggles on big stage

| Friday, January 1, 2021

Back in 2012, Notre Dame ran the table in the regular season and entered the BCS National Championship as an unbeaten squad, with their major strength being their vaunted defense. The Irish ran into a Crimson Tide team that was better all the way around and predicated on their physicality in the trenches, which led a ferocious running game. After the 42-14 loss, Notre Dame began looking at its program in a new way, and after bottoming out with a 4-8 season in 2016, the Irish have returned to consistent success on the gridiron. Head coach Brian Kelly’s squad has won over 10 games in four straight seasons, but they are still struggling to find that final step: winning a national championship. 

“Kelly has brought this program a long way,” Sports Illustrated’s Bryan Driskell said. “We’re arguing whether 10-2 is a good season or not, when not that long ago, Notre Dame fans were fired up for 10 wins — it didn’t happen that often.”

That being said, Kelly’s consistency in making Notre Dame a top-15 program is reason for praise, Driskell said, but there’s room for improvement when it comes to the Irish’s struggles under the bright lights.

“We should be able to praise Brian Kelly for what he’s done and continue to demand that he does what is necessary to reach that next level,” Driskell said.

While Notre Dame does look similar to those Alabama teams of early in the decade, with physical linemen, hard-hitting linebackers, a spectacular running back and a quarterback that won’t make a lot of mistakes, it simply doesn’t feel like the Irish are on par with the rest of the College Football Playoff field. Is it a recruiting issue? Alabama is averaging a recruiting class ranked 2.8 in the nation over the last five seasons. Meanwhile, Notre Dame slots in at 13.8, with their highest ranked class sitting at No. 9.

However, Driskell refuted the idea that recruiting is the culprit for Notre Dame’s struggles on the biggest stage. 

“I think if you look at Notre Dame’s consistency, they’re constantly in that 10-15 range. Over a four-to-five year period, when you put that together, Notre Dame is a top-10 team; it’s not the same teams ahead of them each year,” Driskell said. “They recruit well enough to be at this level.”

So if it’s not recruiting — the scapegoat most Irish fans use for their big-game struggles — what exactly is the problem?

“To me the biggest difference is recruiting and developing quarterbacks,” Driskell said. “If you go back to the 2018 Cotton Bowl and you trade quarterbacks, what is the outcome?”

That comment is partially a reflection of Kelly and his inability to groom quarterbacks from excellent recruits into Heisman-level signal-callers. Transcendent quarterbacks can help a program make the jump from very good to elite, and it’s the jump Notre Dame has not made yet.

You look at the five years before Notre Dame played Clemson in 2015 (with Deshaun Watson), Notre Dame had better recruiting classes in four of those years” Driskell said. “But the difference in 2015, Clemson had Deshaun Watson. And because of the success he had on the field, their recruiting vaulted to a new level.”

Notre Dame has some exciting talent in their quarterback room right now, with Drew Pyne and Brendon Clark flashing promising talents as backups to Ian Book, and four-star recruit Tyler Buchner — at one point a five-star prospect — is on the way, but recruiting top players at the position hasn’t necessarily been the issue for Notre Dame.

“I think potentially Tyler Buchner could be that guy … but I felt the same way about Phil Jurkovec, Deshone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson,” Driskell said. “They all had the talent, but as they progressed through their career, they regressed as players. The development piece was not there.”

Ken Ruinard | USA TODAY Sports
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book looks to throw under pressure during Notre Dame’s 34-10 ACC Championship game loss to Clemson on Dec. 19. Book is the all-time winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history but boasts just a 1-3 record against top-5 opponents in his career.

Kelly gets another chance with Buchner to prove he can develop a quarterback, but Notre Dame is running out of chances to prove themselves in big games. Their offense has repeatedly been stagnant in these situations; they’ve scored a total of 13 points in their past two championship-setting games against Clemson, and, of course, 14 points in that game eight years ago against Alabama. And that’s a problem when facing the powerful and dynamic offenses that are spreading like wildfire through college football.

“The reality is that in today’s era, defense doesn’t win championships,” Driskell said. “Defense gets you to the show, but offense wins championships. You have to be able to score to win a title.”

That potent offensive output has been missing for Notre Dame, as they struggle to compete against the top teams year-in and year-out. And as 20-point underdogs against Alabama in the upcoming Rose Bowl, Notre Dame faces the very real possibility of wilting on the national stage again, and while recruiting hasn’t been an issue to this point, it could become one soon. 

“I think a lot of the vibes that Notre Dame has built over the last few years, culminating with the win over Clemson, go away with another blowout loss,” Driskell said, comparing Notre Dame to Clemson back in 2015, when they lost to Alabama in their first trip to the title game, but kept the game competitive. “It’s a lot easier to sell to recruits that they’re the missing piece when you’re losing 45-40 versus 42-14 or 30-3.”

Ultimately, Notre Dame might not have the same level of blue chip talent on the gridiron against Alabama on Friday, but it’s not recruiting that’s the big issue for Notre Dame. They have to develop those recruits and start making their presence known when the whole country is watching, or else the consistent recruiting that Driskell noted as a strength will begin to falter.

“We should be able to praise Brian Kelly, however, this is still Notre Dame, and the goal is still championships. And he hasn’t done some of those things — especially offensively — to get to that next level.”

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