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Adams: Playing Notre Dame football “What if…”

| Friday, March 12, 2021

If you’ve been following my work with The Observer for a while, first of all, thank you. Second, you may have seen various pieces I’ve done related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a similar spirit, inspired in part by the Disney+ series “What If…” set to be released this year, here’s some fun hypothetical questions to dissect about Notre Dame football from the four years I’ve been on campus. So, without further ado, it’s time to ask, “What if…”


…Mike Elko didn’t jump ship for Texas A&M?

A lot of people liked to draw parallels between Notre Dame and Texas A&M at the end of this past season, especially when it became clear that the most likely scenario for the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff would be a debate between the two teams. The Mike Elko/Clark Lea dynamic was one of the factors making the teams eerily similar to compare.

Elko, of course, was defensive coordinator in South Bend for one season in 2017 before being lured away for a big-time pay raise on Jimbo Fisher’s staff in College Station. Lea came to Notre Dame with Elko from Wake Forest and served as the linebackers coach for a season before getting promoted to DC in 2018.

This is an interesting question to me both for the ramifications it would have in 2021 and 2022 as well as in recruiting. Firstly, let’s suppose the Irish had just one more year of Elko, and let’s assume they still go to the Playoff with him in 2018. Then, in 2019, Lea takes over as defensive coordinator for the first time.

I doubt Lea would miss much of a beat taking over as defensive coordinator just one year later than he actually got the job. However, with only one or two years of experience, does he still get a head coaching look from schools like Boston College and Vanderbilt? If not, does he stay for a third season in 2021 rather than take a Group-of-5 coaching position?

If so, then Notre Dame doesn’t have an opening for Marcus Freeman, who probably goes to LSU, which means the Irish probably don’t have the same defensive recruiting boost as they do currently. And speaking of recruiting, would another year of Elko have given the Irish a little more steam on the recruiting trail? That’s something to consider because one of the (very few) critiques you could make of Lea is that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, he never seemed to show the same kind of elite recruiting chops that the coordinators sandwiched around him have shown.

Regardless, I think Notre Dame fans couldn’t really ask for anything more production-wise from the elite defensive play they’ve been blessed with the last four seasons.

What if…


…Kevin Stepherson didn’t get himself kicked off the team?

The way that Stepherson made me feel when he diced up USC in 2017… magical. Too bad he had to commit numerous violations of team rules — and actual crimes like shoplifting.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a commentary on Stepherson as a person. I feel it’s important to note that people are more than the worst decision they’ve ever made. Maybe he’s changed his life for the better, maybe he hasn’t. I don’t know the guy.

With that disclaimer out of the way, just imagine a starting wide receiver group of Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Stepherson in 2018. I don’t know if Stepherson would have made the same Randy Moss-esque catch like Chris Finke did against Michigan in that season’s opener, but I’m pretty sure he would have made several other elite plays throughout the season.

But this really becomes an important question when we get to the Cotton Bowl against Clemson. Would Stepherson have made a difference against the Tigers? He certainly presented a dual-threat capability both through the air and carrying the rock that none of the other wide receivers did. Maybe that speed would have allowed him to create more separation that the other receivers, a factor that Ian Book very clearly took into consideration before every trying to let it rip.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Stepherson would have made the difference because, again, a lot hinges on who’s throwing him the ball, and Book showed throughout his career that he was — for lack of a better word — scared to take risks. It’s possible that Book could have gained confidence from having a weapon like Stepherson and thereby would have had faith in his receivers to make tough plays, but I’m extremely hesitant to think that would have been a probable outcome.

What if…


…The staff benched Ian Book for Phil Jurkovec?

Let’s be honest. If recruiting rankings and raw potential mean anything in college football, Phil Jurkovec should have supplanted Ian Book. That especially after the miserable showing from Book against Michigan in 2019 that sparked the Notre Dame quarterback controversy anew.

That was a difficult night for every single Notre Dame player involved, but it shone a light on the fact that the quarterback position was leaving a lot to be desired, because no College Football Playoff contender should ever have their starting quarterback go 8-25 passing in any situation. It also shone a light on the fact that, whether it was the fault of the staff or the player, Jurkovec had not developed enough.

Because Brian Kelly said point blank that if they thought Phil could win them games, Phil would be playing.

But let’s just say for sake of argument that the staff actually made the bold decision to bench Book for the following Virginia Tech game and gave Jurkovec the reins. What happens? Do the Irish drop it to the Hokies? Does Jurkovec play poorly and, if he does, does Book return and still lead them to a comeback victory, or would that ultimately be a losing effort?

If Notre Dame lost that game to Virginia Tech, whether with Book or Jurkovec at the helm, it’s honestly kind of difficult for me to envision Book returning to South Bend in 2020 (and maybe even Jurkovec for that matter), or the team making the CFP. Both would have lost faith in the coaching staff, so maybe the Irish go get a graduate transfer for 2020.

It’s really interesting to evaluate just how important that one-point win over Virginia Tech was for the Notre Dame program because of the course it ultimately set them on for the rest of that season and this most recent one.

What if…


…Clark Lea had gotten the Boston College job?

Speaking of what ramifications the 2019 season would have on 2020, imagine if Clark Lea was offered to move to Chestnut Hill rather than forced to wait another year to take a head coaching job. From all reports, he didn’t lose the job — former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley won it, and you can see from his first season that things are looking up for the Eagles.

If Lea is gone after 2019, does the Irish defense attain the same kind of absurd stoutness that they showed this season despite numerous areas of weakness? Do they do that with, for example, current defensive line coach Mike Elston stepping into the defensive coordinator role?

I’m not sure what DC options were available following the 2019 season, but it’s tough to see the Irish landing a home run hire there who would leave after one season to then open up a spot for Marcus Freeman this season. Maybe they could have swiped him from the Bearcats a year early then.

In any case, let’s be sure to recognize that, as for the recruiting implications of this hypothetical, the 2021 recruiting cycle was probably the strangest ever and a different defensive coordinator would almost certainly have had different results. This year’s signing class appears to be a good one — though we won’t know for sure until the next couple of years parse it out — but maybe the opinion shifts with a different player here and there. Food for thought.

And, finally, what if…


…Jarrett Patterson didn’t break his foot against Boston College?

This seems like the most relevant “what if” question from the end of the 2020 season because it was pretty clear that the offensive line was the crux of Notre Dame’s offensive success so losing Patterson definitely hurt.

It didn’t matter much against North Carolina or Syracuse because both Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg were quality enough to get by with relative ease, but the reason Lugg had to play (with an injury of his own, mind you) was because Correll sprained his ankle. So maybe I should have included Correll’s injury in the question seeing as it kept him out of the starting lineup in the ACC Championship.

And that’s really the point of this hypothetical: evaluating the impact a healthy center would have had on Notre Dame-Clemson pt. 2. Because, if we’re being honest, the offensive line actually played really well against Alabama in the Rose Bowl, so this is more a question of if a healthier offensive line would have made a difference against a fully-loaded Tigers defense featuring Tyler Davis, James Skalski and Mike Jones (who all missed the Nov. 7 matchup with the Irish).

If Patterson would have helped buy Book enough time — or at least given him a greater sense of comfort — to find receivers downfield, and Notre Dame ended up scraping out at least a close loss to Clemson, would the committee have just dropped Notre Dame to No. 3 in the final rankings so they could avoid a semifinal matchup with Bama? Probably not. But a win would have most likely kept ND at No. 2 and earned them a date with Ohio State — who, of course, ended up running Clemson out of the building in the Playoff.

Maybe Clark Lea’s Irish defense would have fared better in a semifinal matchup against the Buckeyes than the Tiger’s defense did, or maybe the Notre Dame offense would have had a better time playing ball control against the Ohio State defense than Alabama’s. Interesting to think about, although I’m inclined to say that any scenario would have resulted in a Playoff loss for the Irish either way.


Of course, you can think differently. And that’s the point of this exercise, because there are bound to be a varied assortment of opinions on these situations and others, whether from the last four years or before I ever paid attention to Notre Dame football.

I just hope that one day in the future, when I’m old and grey (at the ripe age of 25) and reading The Observer, another sportswriter will have taken up the torch of connecting Notre Dame football to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, if all is right with the world, I’ll be pondering the hypothetical of “What if Tyler Buchner didn’t just lead Notre Dame to back-to-back national championships wins in 2022 and 2023?”

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.

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