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Adams: Setting the record straight on my ND football takes

| Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Here we go again.

Alright, I’ve put out two columns now that have elicited negative responses for my takes on not trusting Brian Kelly in 2021, an admittedly rash piece, and the debate over developing young talent or trying to make the CFP next season — a more thought-out piece that somehow managed to earn even more visceral reactions than the previous one.

Now, let’s hope the third time is the charm, because I feel the need to be explicit and convince everyone that I am not an idiot when it comes to my opinions on Notre Dame football.

1. Firstly, and I want to be 100% clear about this: It is always better to make the College Football Playoff than to miss out on it!

Happy? Even if it may have come off this way from my previous columns, rest assured that I am not one of the fools out there saying it is in Notre Dame’s best interest to miss the Playoff in 2021 and go for a New Year’s Six bowl that they can actually win. To be in the Playoff means you have a chance (even if it’s a reallllly small chance) at winning the national championship.

If Jack Coan gets Notre Dame to the Playoff, good on him. I believe he can do it, and I have said that point blank. I am simply worried about what would occur afterwards, because I do not anticipate Brian Kelly and his staff making the necessary adjustments to their offensive philosophy, which is what that second column was really about…

2. Because, in that second column, I did not actually take a position on the argument of developing young talent or earning a CFP berth. That wasn’t the point, because there’s more options than just those two things. In fact, you could do both of them, which is the most ideal scenario.

The point of that piece was to lament the most likely scenario that will occur in 2021: Notre Dame drops a game or two and misses out on the Playoff — which isn’t inherently the end of the world. However, in doing so, they will fail to get the rest of their quarterback room (and other offensive skill positions) meaningful reps because they will continue to play with the same offensive philosophy that they have been using under Brian Kelly (but more on that later).

3. I have never coached the game of football. Furthermore, I have only played peewee flag football, two-hand touch football with guys in my dorm and a few snaps for the Zahm-Keenan interhall tackle football team.

If you think I know nothing about the game of football based on the fact the only legitimate experience I have with the game is watching Kentucky, Notre Dame and the occasional NFL team play it, then you don’t have to put any stock in a single word I say. I don’t think my lack of experience automatically disqualifies my writing from having validity, but you are entitled to your opinion.

4. For me, I feel like this boils down to expectations, and we need to figure out where we all stand with our expectations for Notre Dame football. Here’s mine: Notre Dame should be competing for the national championship every single season. And, for what it’s worth, I firmly believe that Notre Dame can win a national championship next season; it would take a perfect storm to a certain degree, but IF Notre Dame were to make the requisite philosophical changes offensively, they could do it.

Is that an unreasonable expectation? As I see it, Brian Kelly dug the program out of a hole in 2016 and has made the College Football Playoff in two of the last three seasons. They shouldn’t be taking any steps back, and, more than perpetually being in the hunt for the College Football Playoff, they should actually be making noise once they get there.

To date, they have made zero noise, aside from when they start trending because their cornerbacks have gotten embarrassed by Clemson and Alabama (sorry, Donte Vaughn and Nick McCloud).

Now, what are your expectations? If it’s for Notre Dame to simply be a double-digit-winning machine, then you can stop reading because, as Dave Mason said, “We Just Disagree.” And if you think Notre Dame’s recruiting limitations prevent them from ever reaching national championship heights, you can also stop reading because, as Dave Mason said, “We Just Disagree.”

Notre Dame should be about more than just winning a bunch of regular season football games. Yes, I obviously recognize that you have to do that to make the College Football Playoff. But what the Irish have been doing is just barely good enough to get them to the CFP, and when they get there, they stick to the approach they’ve been taking, and then they get dominated.

That comes down to offense — because the Irish defense has not been what has held them back from a national championship. We’ve seen the results the past four seasons. Notre Dame loses to teams that they can’t simply out-talent because they can’t put up points against them, and eventually the defense folds because they are left out to dry for too long. It’s formulaic.

To people who point to the Notre Dame win over Clemson on Nov. 7 as evidence they can beat a team that was better than them, that was a very good, borderline great team, but I think the 2020 Notre Dame team was more complete than that iteration of Clemson. Let’s be real, that version of the Tigers was not the No. 1 team in the country.

It was a great win. It was an outstanding win. I ran around the Notre Dame Stadium field shirtless after that win. It was a better win than Texas A&M beating Florida, in my mind. D.J. Uiagalelei is probably going to be an elite quarterback, and he put up great numbers that night.

However, don’t forget that the Irish focused on stopping Travis Etienne, not Uiagalelei. Also, the Tigers were missing three defensive starters; we saw the difference they made on Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship. That Nov. 7 win was a great win, but those were two very different Clemson teams. But I digress…

I have to admit that I don’t know the intricacies of the game of football very well, but I have to believe there are buttons that can be pushed that will lead to the Notre Dame offense being more of a threat against premier competition.

5. I want to make a distinction between offensive philosophy and offensive scheme. There was nothing inherently wrong with Notre Dame’s offensive scheme in 2020. Running the damn ball was a strength, and they should have done it like they did, but they needed an injection of explosiveness to their passing attack.

Obviously, Notre Dame’s scheme is going to change in 2021. I think Kelly and co. are smart enough to shift their emphasis away from running the ball. That’s because they lose four of five starters along the offensive line and the strength of the offense, presumably, is going to come from the pass-catching personnel. I’m not worried about that.

I’m worried that there will be no change in offensive philosophy next season. Here are the key elements of Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy that I take exception to:

  • He favors veterans over younger — and probably more talented — players.

That’s not inherently bad, but the way he does it has negative effects. He doesn’t give Xavier Watts or Jordan Johnson a single target as freshmen (and that’s a whole other column that I am working on) and he underutilizes Chris Tyree (see: one carry in the ACC Championship, a carry that went for Notre Dame’s only touchdown of the game).

Sure, Ben Skowronek, Avery Davis, Javon McKinley and Kyren Williams are more well-rounded than their backups, but the backups present different dynamics that can supplement the starters’ shortcomings. And secondly:

  • He plays the “nice guy” too much.

Remember when Kelly said he was tired of being the “nice guy” at halftime of this past season’s USF game? Well, apparently, he didn’t mean it in the way that every single person watching the broadcast thought he meant it.

See, at least to me, saying you no longer want to be the nice guy means you are about to run up the score on someone. I thought it was kinda like that scene from “Remember the Titans’ where Coach Yoast tells Coach Boone: “Run it up Herman! Leave no doubt!”

Alas, it was really just about the Irish defense making sure they shut out USF. That’s all well and good, but could Drew Pyne really only get two pass attempts in that game? If you don’t wanna be the nice guy, then don’t just run the clock out. Instead, actually let Pyne (and Johnson and Watts) get meaningful reps. And then do that against the rest of the teams you are head and shoulders above.

That way, when Ian Book goes out for a couple of snaps in the Rose Bowl, maybe Pyne has enough experience and confidence that you actually try putting pressure on Alabama with him rather than playing for the punt and hoping Book catches his breath.

6. And to the point I made in that second column about Notre Dame’s backups combining for six passes last season and how I described it as a “direct result of an archaic offensive philosophy,” I’ll admit that it’s not really a result. In my mind, the number of non-injury-replacement reps that your backup quarterbacks get is more of a measuring stick — a barometer, if you will — of how dominant your offense is.

I believe that a step in the right direction for Notre Dame would be to keep their foot on the gas and destroy opponents like Clemson and Alabama do — although of course I don’t anticipate them obliterating teams on the level of a Clemson or Alabama — then let their backup skill position players get reps with the starting quarterback and/or let their backup quarterback get reps with the starters at every other position.

That’s not just to prepare your backups in case they do need to come in for injury. It’s to give them confidence and experience so they can eventually be worked into the rotation and then, eventually, not miss a beat when they become starters themselves.

In my mind, the kinds of dominating performances that would allow Notre Dame to give their bench some run (against teams other than New Mexico, Bowling Green, USF and the like) will come when the staff prioritizes making the offense championship caliber. The scheme can change from year to year, but it’s about consistent attitude and mindset.

7. A very obvious life lesson that should have been apparent to me before my experience with that second column: People on Twitter are unreasonable, and trying to convince them of my logic is an exercise in futility. To that end, I hope others can learn from my current situation — it’s better not to engage.

8. It is very difficult to be clear and concise in my opinions on Notre Dame football, even through two (going on three) 2000-word columns.

9. “One Love” to all the critics of me out there, both the regular fans and the other Notre Dame media pundits. Sorry, not sorry, for my hot takes.

I’m just a senior physics and FTT double major with a JED minor trying to balance my objectivity with my internal homer. I’m also hoping that we can all, in the very near future, celebrate an Irish national championship together, and I’m simply offering my opinion on how Notre Dame most rapidly gets to that promised land for the first time since 1988.

10. The Notre Dame men’s basketball team just put up 90 points at Cameron Indoor and beat Duke for the first time in years. In BASKETBALL.

I know Duke is having a down year, but damn does that feel good.

11. I really just want to have 11 points for each of Notre Dame’s national championships. I can be cutesy like that.

Well, I hope that sets the record straight on everything. If not, I’ve done all I can.

If you have any further qualms, allow me to borrow from my high school drama teacher/school play director, who told me he loved suggestions so much and that I could direct them to his suggestion box … before promptly pointing to the garbage can in the room. Feel free to deposit your criticisms there as well.

Happy Valentine’s Day! “One Love.

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