This season’s offense could look much different than last year’s, but that should be interpreted as good news. In 2020, Brian Kelly and Tom Rees achieved a high degree of success with a talented and experienced offensive line and a quarterback who did not turn the ball over. The challenge in 2021 is to raise the ceiling of the offensive production despite graduation losses at quarterback and in the trenches. On paper, the roster is loaded with players who can help reach that goal.
The running game blossomed last fall with the emergence of Kyren Williams and Ian Book’s timely scrambles. The passing game was good enough in most games despite Book’s limitations and unwillingness to take chances. Book threw safe passes to big, lumbering receivers such as Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek and tight end Michael Mayer, who physically outmaneuvered smaller, less talented defensive backs for the ball.
Where the plan fell apart, however, was against elite competition in the postseason. Alabama and a healthy Clemson defense covered those receivers and trapped Book in the pocket. Back shoulder throws and jump balls simply didn’t work at this level of competition. Without a credible passing threat, the running game was effectively neutralized and the Irish could not put nearly enough points on the board to have a chance. Meanwhile, these teams exhibited sophisticated passing schemes run by elite quarterbacks and stocked with superior athletes at wide receiver. Notre Dame’s aerial attack was at a high school level by comparison.
This year, Kelly and Rees have plenty of talent to draw from in order to create a passing game that can challenge any opponent. The questions that will only be partially answered this spring is which quarterback and group of receivers will begin to separate themselves from the pack. The other side of the equation is how well and quickly the coaching staff can develop these individual talents into a cohesive unit.
Let’s look at the position groups and the competition for starting jobs.
Heralded freshman Tyler Buchner has enrolled early in order to compete for the starting job this spring. He is said to be a fast learner, a gifted runner and a more than adequate passer. He reportedly has the intangibles required to be a leader in such a highly visible environment. Will Brian Kelly be willing to turn over the keys to his 2021 fortunes to him? We’ll see.
Kelly has a safe insurance policy in graduate transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin. If he selects Coan to run the show this season, we may not see much of Buchner until 2022 based on Kelly’s repeated failures to afford backup quarterbacks any meaningful snaps. That would be a shame unless Buchner clearly demonstrates that he isn’t ready. After all, he is the most heralded signal caller to arrive on campus since Dayne Crist, whose marriage to Kelly didn’t end very well.
Not to be forgotten are junior Brendon Clark and sophomore Drew Pyne. Clark is recovering from knee surgery and will sit out this spring. His status for the fall is still a bit cloudy. Pyne is a competitor with leadership qualities, but has size and arm strength limitations. Freshman Ron Powlus, Jr. was recruited as long term roster insurance who can run the scout team. Ultimately, Powlus has enough tools to develop into a productive player if pressed into service.
John’s take: I’d like to see Buchner win the job with Coan ready in reserve if he struggles now and then. It’s the only way Buchner will develop the skills and confidence the team needs in 2022 when the schedule is significantly more challenging. That said, I believe Kelly will go with Coan and take the safe route toward another ten win season.
Jarrett Patterson is the only returning full time starter from last season, but that should not be a cause for concern. There are several talented players in the pipeline, but where Patterson lines up this season may indicate which ones are ready to play and which are not. The primary challenge for the coaching staff this spring is to find two reliable starting tackles. There are plenty of candidates for the three internal slots, including Patterson at his normal center position.
The tackle prospects were all highly recruited, including juniors Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic, sophomores Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody, and five-star freshman Blake Fisher. Fifth year senior Josh Lugg is an option on the right side, but the staff prefers him at guard.
The time has arrived for Carroll and Kristofic to break through, but that may be wishful thinking. In fact, the younger players named above have even greater upside. Baker and Fisher could be the bookends of the future, but that day is more likely a year away.
If the staff is unable to settle on two of these players as starters, Patterson may be asked to take over on the left side. This would open the center slot for Zeke Correll, who held his own late last year when Patterson went down with an injury.
There are plenty of options at guard. Lugg and Dillan Gibbons have game experience and were adequate when healthy. Correll could claim a spot if Patterson remains at center. Fisher or fellow freshman Rocco Spindler may prove to be too good to be kept on the sidelines. Converted defensive lineman Hunter Spears, a junior, might also emerge.
John’s take: I’d be satisfied with a line of Carroll and Kristofic at tackle, Lugg and Gibbons at guard, and Patterson in the middle, but it would not excite me. I expect to see Patterson moved outside, which is fine because I like Correll at center more than guard due to lack of elite size. The player I’m most anxious to see is Spindler. Don’t be surprised if he earns a spot.
Williams returns to lead a trio of experienced runners and a pair of promising freshmen. All have enough speed for fans to forget the 2019 season where steady but painfully slow Tony Jones was the leading ball carrier. Williams’s above-average speed, slashing style and ability to break through initial contact lifted him over 1,000 yards in 2020. He also caught 35 passes.
Chris Tyree also had a productive freshman season with 500 rushing yards. Although faster than Williams and most everyone else on the team, he was rarely able to run through first contact with a defender. Another year of strength and conditioning should lead to improvement, which would give the Irish a dynamic one-two punch. Veteran C’Bo Flemister (300 yards in 2020) is a physical force who relies on power more than wiggle. He is a productive situational runner whose enthusiasm is fun to watch.
Whereas the three incumbent backs are relatively small in stature, incoming freshman Audric Estime brings the element of size to the table. He is a workout warrior, and at 220 pounds is a candidate for opportunities near the goal line. Fellow newcomer Logan Diggs is a talented prospect that could potentially become the featured back in 2022 should Williams depart for the NFL a year from now.
John’s take: We’re loaded. I’m curious to see whether Tyree can become more powerful without losing speed.
This is where it gets interesting. This year’s entire receiving corps recorded only 44 receptions in 2020, including 24 by slot man Avery Davis. The two outside players that are currently penciled in as starters, Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin, caught a combined eight passes last season. Now seniors, their careers have been disappointing to date. To make matters worse, they may not be physically able to participate fully this spring.
Fellow seniors Joe Wilkins (outside) and Lawrence Keys (slot) have flashed athletic ability at times, but have not managed to break through as reliable starters. Davis, a fifth-year player, had a pair of legendary catches in the game-winning drive against Clemson last November, but was a non-factor in the postseason.
Much of the failure and unrealized potential described above falls at the feet of the coaching staff, particularly position coach Del Alexander. The schemes employed by Kelly and Rees don’t maximize the talent pool, either, and it’s hard to imagine that none of these players possess the work ethic and drive to succeed. Something is fundamentally wrong here.
This recent history of poor development does not bode well for sophomores Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle. Each watched as fellow freshman receivers across the country contributed significantly to their respective teams while they rode the pine. How much longer will these very talented players wait for their moment to shine? In addition, junior Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a talented player in his own right, has been buried by multiple position switches.
To further compound the problem, three more excellent prospects join the receiving corps this year. Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas would be strong candidates for meaningful playing time at most schools this fall, but we probably won’t see them. This would be a shame, particularly in the case of Styles, an electric player. He might get a sniff on special teams though.
Therefore, the challenge for the staff this spring and summer is twofold: develop the individual players, and create the type of schemes that will bring the passing offense into the 21st century. This group of receivers has the speed to get open and make plays such that ultraconservative sideline fades and back shoulder throws can be mothballed. The degree of improvement in this facet of the game will go a long way to determine how good this offense can be.
John’s take: Most coaches would sell their souls for a talent pool like this, but Kelly, Rees and particularly Alexander have so far managed to squander it. If Lenzy and Austin aren’t the answer, there should be multiple players ready to step into the breach and be productive given competent coaching.
At Alabama, Nick Saban has largely kept an overloaded roster happy by convincing young studs to wait behind talented older players while finding ways to keep them engaged either in live fire situations or during blowout wins. This isn’t happening at Notre Dame, and not only because Brian Kelly could not carry Saban’s clipboard.
First, the good news. Michael Mayer returns to lead a solid group of athletes. Fellow sophomore Kevin Bauman will step into the lineup and quickly become a more versatile receiving option than the departed Brock Wright. Senior George Takacs is more than adequate as complementary player to Mayer. He blocks, catches and runs well enough to earn his keep.
The bad news is the early departure of Tommy Tremble, whose unique blocking ability and physical nature will be especially missed because this year’s line will not be as good as the 2020 group. Neither Bauman nor Takacs appears to be the type of player that can effectively replace him.
Incoming freshman Cane Berrong and Mitchell Evans are developmental players with good long-term potential, but probably won’t be utilized in 2021.
John’s take: Mayer is good enough to make this position a strength, but the running game will feel the loss of Tremble. Rees can still run three tight end sets by deploying Bauman and Takacs, but there is no reliable depth behind them in case of injury.
It’s too soon to know whether the 2021 offense will meet our criteria for success, but it can’t help but be different. There are too many new faces with unique strengths and weaknesses for Kelly and Rees to run the same plays using the same schemes. Forcing eight new starters to replicate an offensive identity that has outlived its usefulness would be a colossal coaching failure. This can’t happen, right?
At the skill positions, the 2021 group is more talented than last year’s. The outlier is the line, where there is bound to be a dropoff in terms of physical dominance and assignment execution. The degree of that regression will depend on the quality of the coaching and the desire of each individual player to excel. These are things we can’t determine from the bleachers, but we’ll have the answers we seek when we see the finished product.
As much as I’d like to see a more significant overhaul of the offense, I doubt that will happen. Kelly and Rees will more likely opt for simple tweaks as opposed to real changes. This points to Coan as the quarterback, while Rees will add a few wrinkles to the route schemes in the passing game. The run game philosophy probably won’t change at all.
This would be disappointing. The ground game won’t be as productive with the turnover up front and the loss of Tremble even if the backs are individually stronger players than they were last season. Coan is not Book’s equal as a runner, whereas Buchner might be even better.
While the quarterback decision and makeup of the offensive line are critical, the offense won’t go anywhere unless the wealth of talent at wide receiver is developed and deployed effectively. Even then, talent can’t overcome inferior schemes.
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