We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team site to work with during game weeks. This week, we’re chatting with Pat Rick, editor over at One Foot Down, SBN’s Notre Dame blog (you can find Patrick on Twitter here). We chatted about their new quarterback, their massive talent turnover, and the future of the sport.
- TN: Notre Dame lost a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, to both the NFL Draft and the transfer portal. Let’s start with the offense and just at quarterback specifically – who is Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan and what does he bring to Notre Dame’s offense? How is he different than Ian Book?
OFD: Jack Coan is a solid, experienced veteran. In 2019 he started for Wisconsin and helped lead them to a 10-3 regular season and a Rose Bowl appearance, where they lost a super close game to Oregon. He was very efficient that year, finishing #20 in the country in QB rating and #8 in completion % (better than Book in both stats), and he certainly brings some things to the table that Ian Book did not — specifically, height (6’3” vs. Book’s 6’0”), a stronger arm, and a greater ability, willingness, and decisiveness to take some risks throwing the ball, especially downfield.
With that said, he certainly isn’t the next great transfer QB who will carry his team to a title, either. At Wisconsin, he had Jonathan Taylor to hand the ball to, and was never asked to be the focal point of the offense, whereas Ian Book was the straw that stirred the drink for the Irish the last 3 seasons. Coan may have been more efficient throwing the ball in 2019, but Book dwarfed him in terms of sheer production: Coan’s 2019 was 2,727 yards, 18 TD, and 5 INT, while Book threw for over 3,000 yards, 34 TD, and still just 6 INT. Oh, and Book also had speed, athleticism, and playmaking ability that Coan simply does not — Book ran for 546 and 4 TD in that 2019 season, while Coan managed 22 yards and 4 TD on 56 attempts.
So overall, I think Coan will allow offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to open up the offense a bit in terms of the passing game, allowing him to better utilize some really promising skill talent ND has accumulated. In that sense, Coan will be an upgrade over Book, but the trade-off will be losing Book’s improvisational talent, his creativity, and of course that running ability that always made him so dangerous. I think with the talent around him, Coan is good enough to take this ND team to a NY6 bowl or maaaybe a CFP where they end up getting smoked by one of the big boys — which is about all you could ask of him.
- TN: Now let’s do the rest of the offense – ND sent nine! guys to the NFL, including three offensive linemen. Can you give us a quick rundown of who the Irish lost on offense and the quality of talent replacing them? Is there any anxiety from Irish faithful on such massive turnover of talent?
OFD: There’s certainly some anxiety, and you hit the nail on the head that the biggest source of said anxiety comes from the offensive line. ND is replacing 4 of 5 starters (who’d been starting for multiple years together) from 2020, and although Notre Dame has been recruiting very well at o-line for a while now, it’s going to be a very unproven group in 2021 that will almost by default be taking a step back from what Kyren “Bellyman” Williams and Chris Tyree got to run behind last season.
The starting group is pretty set, and it includes:
- Blake Fisher: a true freshman LT, replacing a 2nd Rounder in Liam Eichenberg
- Zeke Correll: a LG who was a C last season, replacing a 2nd Rounder in Aaron Banks
- Jarrett Patterson: an All-American C — thank the Lord for him
- Cain Madden: a Marshall transfer at RG (who was an All-American last year, but will be facing a whole new level of competition in 2021), replacing Tommy Kraemer, who went undrafted but signed with the Lions
- Josh Lugg: a RT who’s been the offensive line’s 6th man for the past couple seasons, replacing a 3rd Rounder in Robert Hainsey
At receiver, the Irish lost TEs Tommy Tremble (3rd Rounder) and Brock Wright (undrafted) and WRs Ben Skowronek (7th Rounder) and Javon McKinley (undrafted). Tremble is the biggest loss there, but mostly because he was an unbelievable lead blocker for the Irish running backs last season. Michael Mayer plus his backups George Takacs and Kevin Bauman will be fine in terms of blocking, and are much, much better receivers from the TE spot. At WR, McKinley and Skowronek were fine as reliable, big-bodied veterans, but the guys stepping into their spots — Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy — are significantly more talented. They simply haven’t been able to stay healthy until now (KNOCKING ON ALL THE WOOD IN MY APARTMENT), but should quickly prove to be superior receivers.
Finally, If you were wondering about running back, the Irish are absolutely stacked at the position and bring everyone back from last year. Bellyman and Tyree are potentially the best duo in the country, IF the offensive line can give them somewhere to run (could be a big “if”). They’ll be heavily involved and productive in the passing game too, though.
- TN: Now it’s time for the defense. I know talented guys like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are gone. I believe ND had two edge rushers taken, him included. What will the Irish defense look like this season, and is there anyone else on the unit as talented as safety Kyle Hamilton?
OFD: Unfortunately for ND, they actually had two edge rushers plus JOK drafted, as starting DEs Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes both got taken in the 5th round. So, their three most reliable/disruptive pass rushers from 2020 have all departed. Add in that LB Marist Liufau —who was set to not only start, but also break out as a star this year — went down for the season with a broken ankle last week, and there’s definitely some concern about whether Marcus Freeman’s first Irish defense will be able to get enough QB pressure.
With that said, the ND front seven is probably the deepest position group on the Irish roster. I’m not sure there are any All-Americans in there (at least this season), but the two-deep at DE, DT, and LB is stronger collectively than it’s ever been under Brian Kelly. So, to get that pass rush, look for guys like junior Isaiah Foskey and senior captain Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to set the standard at DE, while reserve guys like Justin Ademilola, Jordan Botelho, and NaNa Osafo-Mensah need to make the most of their reps when they cycle in. Additionally, the Irish’s defensive tackles will certainly collapse a pocket or two from the middle this year, with senior captain Kurt Hinish back to anchor a talented group that also includes Jayson Ademilola and Rylie Mills.
The linebackers would have gone ~6 deep in terms of guys who regularly see the field, but with Liufau out that will change a bit as Freeman uses multiple people to replace what Liufau could do all on his own. Still, Drew White is a seasoned vet in the middle, Jack Kiser confidently grabbed hold of JOK’s starting Rover role in the spring, and guys like Bo Bauer and J.D. Bertrand have been making plays all over the place in camp. The group doesn’t have a JOK, but they WILL be solid/reliable.
Finally, the secondary is a massive, scary question mark besides Kyle Hamilton. Safety Houston Griffith is a guy whom fans will be happy about if he’s just okay next to Hamilton, and the cornerbacks are a collection of 3-star guys and a converted WR, so I don’t think any of us are going to be confident about them until they prove they didn’t just kind of earn their spots by default. This is the group FSU needs to challenge early and often, in my opinion — basically, throw it wherever Hamilton ISN’T.
Oh, and to answer your last question: absolutely not. No one on the unit is as talented as Hamilton, and honestly probably no one on the team is — which is saying something, considering someone like Mayer on offense, who is already probably the best tight end ND has had in 30 years.
- TN: Many people criticized the ACC for not using the Covid-19 pandemic to leverage Notre Dame into fully joining the conference in football. I asked you a year ago and you said it wouldn’t change the Irish’s plans to stay independent. But that was before the SEC pulled its shenanigans with Texas and Oklahoma. Superconferences are here and now the ACC, the Pac12, and the Big10 want to sort of maybe start a scheduling alliance, perhaps one day even collectively negotiate a TV deal, pending whatever expansion seems inevitable in gobbling up the remains of the Big12. College football’s Power 4.5 seem destined to break away from the NCAA in football and form some sort of league. Notre Dame is at no risk of getting left out of such a league, but looking between now and ten years down the road, do you feel like the Irish’s independence is still on solid ground?
OFD: Solid ground? I’m not sure I can confidently say that. I DO think that athletic director Jack Swarbrick plans to continue down the independent path for as long as possible, and it will be interesting to see how savvy he actually is, because everything happening could certainly lead to a situation where the Irish feel forced to join a conference down the line if they don’t navigate the next few years correctly.
With that said, at least as things are shaping up now, I think the Irish will be safe to stick to their guns for the time being. Like you said, if the Power 4.5 break off from the NCAA, they will ABSOLUTELY invite Notre Dame to be part of it, and I gotta think they could figure out a way for ND to join that new league as an independent and operate similarly to how they operate right now. It would be interesting to see what prominence the “conferences” as we know them would play in a new league like that (at that point, do they necessarily need conferences?).
So, long story short, I think ND is still okay as an independent for now, but as things continue to evolve it may become more and more important that Jack Swarbrick uses the power he currently has to help shape a future that ensures the Irish can still do their independent thing. Considering the Irish are already locked into 5 ACC games per year, though, I wouldn’t say I am super confident Swarbrick and co. will be able to do so. Your guess is as good as mine.
- TN: Lets assume Brian Kelly never wins a national title at Notre Dame. He still revived Notre Dame and made them relevant in the modern era, where winning is arguably more difficult than ever. Where does he rank all-time among Irish coaches?
OFD: To me, he only ranks behind the coaches who have won national championships (Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz). I’m not sure there’s been anyone else in the program’s history who’s had the sustained success he has had without winning a title, but I would also never place him above a coach who’s actually taken the program to the pinnacle of the sport.
And yeah, he’s certainly benefited, compared to coaches in the old days, from expanded schedules, some cupcake opponents, etc., but he’s also still managed to win 102* games and turn in 6* double-digit-win seasons in a pretty tough time to be a college football coach, all while immediately following the horrifying hellscape that was the Bob Davie/George O’Leary/Ty Willingham/Charlie Weis era. That’s pretty damn impressive, even if he’s not in the same stratosphere as any of the coaches actually good enough to win a title in South Bend.
*Officially, this is untrue due to the vacated wins of 2012 and 2013. Which just makes Brian Kelly the bad boy coach of Notre Dame football, amiright???
- TN: Give us a score prediction – who wins on Sunday, and why?
OFD: I think Notre Dame wins, and does so by double digits, but I also don’t think the score will completely reflect how close it’ll actually be. Doak Campbell at night, in a season opener, against a top-10 ND team that has unproven question marks at various key positions? That screams a tense, near-upset atmosphere to me.
With that said, the biggest thing for me is that for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Irish have a legitimately significant talent advantage over Florida State, and so I think that will ultimately play out with ND being too much for Norvell’s team to handle down the stretch, and ND will score 7-10 points in the 4th quarter to make the game look much less close than it was, winning this thing by double digits.
I’ll say Notre Dame 33, FSU 17, with lots of stress and frustration for Irish fans along the way.
Big thanks to Patrick for his time and insight! Be sure to head on over to One Foot Down for all things Fighting Irish. Our answers to their questions can be found here.