The program is in a good spot but must tweak a few areas to become truly elite
Sitting in the stands at AT&T Stadium before kickoff, it seemed near inevitable that Alabama would trounce the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 2021 Rose Bowl. My only hope was that Notre Dame would be able to score a few touchdowns and keep the score close enough to keep the “Notre Dame always gets blown out in big games” crowd at bay.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame fell into a quick 14-0 hole, looking completely outclassed along the way. As the grumbling in the crowd began, I buckled up for another blowout. Surprisingly, the Irish offense put together a sustained offensive drive to get back into the game and allowed the defense to regroup. While never truly in the game, they matched Alabama for much of the remainder of the game. Walking out of the stadium, I didn’t feel like I did after the 2018 College Football Playoff loss to Clemson, and I certainly did not feel the way I did after the 2013 National Championship game. Moving forward, these are 3 areas that Notre Dame must improve upon if they desire to claim their first national title since 1988.
Explosive Special Teams
Plain and simple, this unit needs a jolt. Alabama had DeVonta Smith returning punts and seemingly all of their starters on their kickoff coverage unit. On the flip side, Notre Dame countered with walk-on, Matt Salerno as a punt returner and several backups on the kickoff coverage unit. I’m sure the staff has a good reason for it, but you have to wonder why someone like Braden Lenzy or Chris Tyree can’t be trusted to return punts. As we saw in the Rose Bowl, in this day and age, the name of the game is getting the ball in the hands of your most explosive playmakers. Not only does the coaching staff need to up the number of explosive athletes they are bringing in on a yearly basis, but they also must be able to get these players into positions on the field where they can make an impact. Credit to the staff for having Chris Tyree return kickoffs during the season (this may also be a plausible reason why Tyree is not currently returning punts). However, it was a bit disheartening to see Tyree fair catching each kickoff after he fumbled the initial return. Tyree proved throughout the year to be a key contributor on offense and a reliable returner. In a game in which Notre Dame needed to steal a couple of touchdowns, fair catching each kickoff was hardly the way to accomplish this. At least for right now, it will be tough to match the skill position talent that Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State possesses. Thus, we must seek to gain small advantages in other areas of the game. At this point, it falls on Brian Kelly and Brian Polian to run a much stronger special team unit onto the field on a consistent basis.
Improved Play at Wide Receiver
This seems pretty self-explanatory but needs to be restated. A fair question to ask is why it takes our receivers three years to develop and get onto the field? Why are other schools able to recruit, develop, and receive production from freshmen on a nearly routine basis?
The coaching staff is either consistently missing in recruiting evaluations, consistently missing out on the top-end prospects, or there is a failure to develop the talent after they come to Notre Dame. Personally, I lean towards the latter two options. It is no secret that the program needs to bring in more explosive playmakers at the receiver position, and Brian Kelly alluded to this as much in his postgame press conference. The likes of Javon McKinley, Avery Davis, and Ben Skowronek are not going to be able to consistently win one on one matchups against elite cornerbacks. With that said, there is no question that injuries plagued this unit during the season, most notably with injuries to Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy. However, why has Lawrence Keys III struggled to develop into a reliable slot receiver? Were Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson that unreliable in practice that they could not be trusted to see routine action this season? I do not like to call for someone to be fired, but Brian Kelly must critically evaluate the wide receiver room and determine if Del Alexander is the man for the job moving forward. Since Alexander arrived in 2017, it is a fair take to say that outside of Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool, there has been little consistency and production from the group. This needs to change moving forward.
Improved Mindset in Big Games
This one is hard to quantify. However, it still seems the Irish are caught off guard in every big game, save for the regular season contest against Clemson this year, and fall behind quickly. The players appear to play tentative and robotic. The game plan against Alabama seemed to center around not getting blown on, not on attempting to win the game. Players can sense when their coaches don’t believe they can go out and win a game. On the other hand, an aggressive play call or two can energize the sidelines and swiftly change momentum in a game.
It is tough to find fault with a program that has not lost in the regular season since the 2019 debacle against Michigan. However, until the Irish can come out routinely in big games and punch the opposition in the mouth, the narrative that Notre Dame does not belong in big games will continue to persist.
These three issues will not be fixed overnight. However, the coaching staff should begin working to improve the aforementioned areas as they continue striving for a national championship. All in all, it was a fun ride during the 2020 season, and I am extremely grateful for the dedication and discipline this team showed to make it through the season with limited COVID-19 interruptions.