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Adams: Another CFP berth or developing young talent? Pick your poison…

| Monday, February 8, 2021

I know what you’re probably thinking, but hear me out.

You may be thinking that I’m an idiot just from the title. I would think the majority of you reading this would easily pick making the College Football Playoff in 2021 over Notre Dame taking the risk of throwing inexperienced players on the field and figuring it out from there. Based on the staff’s decision to bring graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan in from Wisconsin, I think they would agree with that sentiment.

This winter, I wrote a column on why we shouldn’t trust Brian Kelly to get 2021 right because of that decision to add Coan to the roster. I have to confess that it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, and I didn’t really organize my thoughts as well as I probably should have. But that’s what this column is for.

My point in that previous piece was to say that, next season, Notre Dame is going into reload mode. The Irish aren’t necessarily rebuilding after two CFP appearances in three seasons and four straight 10-win campaigns, but they do lose a lot, specifically:

  • A three-year starter and the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history
  • Four of five starters along an offensive line that finished in the top three for the Joe Moore Award
  • Two starting wide receivers and two starting-caliber tight ends that accounted for 93 of 231 team receptions last season
  • Two starting graduate student defensive ends who combined for 40 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 10 sacks
  • The best linebacker in the country
  • And two graduate students in the secondary

Meanwhile, they bring back:

  • A 1,000-yard rusher at running back and a dynamic No. 2 back who recorded more than 500 all-purpose yards despite probably being underused (great)
  • A five-star tight end who could be the Mackey Award frontrunner as a true sophomore (outstanding)
  • An All-American at free safety (you love to see it)
  • Question marks that linger at the buck linebacker spot despite three guys rotating through last year (hmm…)
  • A wide receiver room that returns 88 career receptions, including just 49 from the five-man rising senior class and zero from the three rising sophomores (oh…)
  • And a quarterback room that, aside from Coan, is a combined 4-7 passing for their collegiate careers (please stop…)

As such, I would have thought it was in Notre Dame’s best interest to use the upcoming year to build up their talent and prepare for CFP runs in 2022, 2023 and 2024 rather than make a “desperate grab,” as I called it in that previous column, at another CFP berth in 2021.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish freshman running back Chris Tyree, left, and freshman tight end Michael Mayer celebrate after Tyree’s 94-yard touchdown run during Notre Dame’s 45-21 Senior Day win over Syracuse on Dec. 5.

What do I mean by “desperate grab?” Well, with Jack Coan — an established game manager — as your starting quarterback in 2021, I can see a scenario where Notre Dame goes 12-0 against their schedule. I refer you to the previous column to see the in-depth breakdown of it, but suffice to say their toughest opponent could be Cincinnati (at home), and the Irish just stole the Bearcats’ defensive coordinator.

Notre Dame takes on a reloading North Carolina team at home, Wisconsin and USC squads that didn’t look very impressive last year and a Florida State unit that epitomizes disfunction. It’s not a cake walk, but it’s nowhere near a murderer’s row.

With that in mind, allow me to reiterate that I can see Notre Dame going 12-0. If they do, then I think they’ll be in the College Football Playoff again. I would normally accept that reality in any season. But here’s the rub (and what I mean by “desperate grab”):

Notre Dame can go 12-0 and make the College Football Playoff by playing the exact same way they’ve been playing for the last three seasons, a style of play that has led to two embarrassing losses in the CFP.

In my mind, Brian Kelly will be far too easily tempted by that reality and continue to refuse to become more dynamic on offense. That’s because, with Coan in the fold, they can keep playing it safe and get virtually guaranteed results.

The guarantee? They’ll beat every team they should beat and get handled easily by every Playoff-caliber team they come across. It’s what has happened each of the last three seasons.

If Notre Dame plays the same type of offense next season that they played with Ian Book as quarterback, they are going to get their you-know-what kicked by any of Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama or Oklahoma in a Playoff game, despite the fact that those first three teams will all be installing new starting quarterbacks (just like the Irish) and the last team plays almost no defense.

Here’s another guarantee for you: Continuing to play with the same damn offensive philosophy as the last three seasons, none of the quarterbacks behind Coan are going to develop. I just mentioned that the Irish quarterback room, which returns two players to the roster, have combined to throw seven (7) passes in their three combined years. Current Boston College starter Phil Jurkovec threw just 16 in two seasons with the Irish.

In contrast, and while not counting the two games he had to start in place of a coronavirus-infected Trevor Lawrence, Clemson true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei threw 32 passes last season. Furthermore, Taisun Phommachanh and Hunter Helms threw 29 and 12 passes last season, respectively, for the Tigers. Side note: Who the hell are Taisun Phommachanh and Hunter Helms?

Will Spiers — Clemson’s freaking punter — attempted as many passes (three) last season as both of Notre Dame’s backup quarterbacks — Drew Pyne and Brendon Clark — attempted each.

Bryce Young threw 22 passes for Alabama in 2020. Allow me to point out once again that Notre Dame’s backups combined to throw six (6) passes the same season. What would you set the over/under at for combined backup quarterback passes by Notre Dame next season barring an injury replacement? Does 8.5 seem fair?

That is a direct result of an archaic offensive philosophy. Yes, a Joe Moore Award-caliber offensive line and two great running backs meant handing the ball off and playing ball control were strengths. Conversely, a lack of developing wide receivers also led to you bringing in a Northwestern graduate transfer to be your go-to receiving threat. Look how that worked out in the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl.

To be clear, if Kelly does end up evolving his offense with Coan as the starter, I will happily eat crow. HAPPILY. Coan’s got more experience than the other QBs (which I already harped on) and he’s a good player who led Wisconsin to appearances in the Big Ten Championship game and the Rose Bowl. With the weapons around him at Notre Dame, he could do even more damage — in the regular season and beyond.

Of course, those weapons have yet to reach their full potential under a bullheaded head coach and a wide receivers coach — Del Alexander — whose place on the roster is steadily becoming more and more inexplicable and unjustifiable given the lack of explosiveness from Irish wide receivers not named Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, and Claypool and Boykin only displayed consistent dynamism in their final seasons.

Forgive me for having so little faith that either Kelly or Alexander is going to flip the switch in 2021 when they can just as easily keep doing what they’ve been doing and BS their way to another undefeated regular season, another Playoff game loss and another post-Playoff game press conference where they lament about how they need more dynamic playmakers.

So, the two options I presented at the start of this piece aren’t really THE two options, are they? It’s really Notre Dame going 12-0 and making the Playoff before yet another frustrating loss OR the Irish dropping one or two games and winding up in a New Year’s Six Bowl (or perhaps another trip to Orlando for the rebranded Cheez-it Bowl).

That latter scenario wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, except it will have been accomplished without any of the young quarterbacks getting any meaningful development because Coan will probably have started every game. That amounts to a waste of a season when Coan is gone in 2022 and you have to open the season vs. Ohio State in Columbus (and you have another November date with Clemson).

I wonder what Kelly’s answer to that problem will be… Wait, I know! He’ll just go get another transfer quarterback and forsake the three-, four- and borderline five-star players his staff actually recruited to play for him. Because why take the time to develop young men when you can take the easy way out and bring in pre-developed ones? That’s a great example to set for your young, impressionable players.

So, please allow me to apologize to Coan, because I meant no offense by that previous column. I wish him nothing but the best in South Bend, and I honestly believe that, if the Irish open up the offense with him, they can compete for a national championship in a reloading year across college football. But at the same time, I worry that he brings with him an omen of continued mediocrity for a Notre Dame offense that is holding the program back from its first national championship in 33 years.

And that’s not Coan’s fault; it’s Brian Kelly’s.

But allow me to also offer my apologies to Kelly for the way I’ve taken him to task in two columns now. I’m sorry that I, as a member of the local media, am not taking it easy on you and saying you had a great year (as you bemoaned in the post-Rose Bowl press conference).

Forgive me for expecting you to win one of your postseason games in 2020, against either a fully-loaded Clemson in the ACC Championship or Alabama in the Playoff. Forgive me for expecting you to execute a game plan that at least made it seem like you wanted to beat the Tide rather than play for a cosmetic loss. Forgive me for expecting you to develop the quarterbacks and wide receivers that you’ve actually recruited, players that have higher ceilings than those of the graduate transfers you’ve brought in.

Have mercy on my soul for these unreasonable expectations. And once you are done rendering judgement upon me, please turn your gaze upon the rest of college football rather than the pundits in your backyard. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Dominating the former will make the latter treat you a whole lot better. And if you do that, then you can fulfill your post-Alabama promise:

“We’re going to keep getting back here, and everybody can keep saying Notre Dame is not good enough. Well, you know what? You’re gonna have a problem because we’re gonna keep winning games, we’re gonna keep getting back here, and we’re gonna break through. And then I’m going to be terrible to be at a press conference with. Terrible.”

I look forward to that day, should it ever actually come.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden